The recent closure of women’s charity Eaves was just the latest example of a contracting culture which sees funding flow away from specialist community organisations to generic national services, writes Polly Neate of Women’s Aid.
Eaves, the London-based women’s charity, closed at the end of last month, sending shockwaves through the women’s sector.
But, at a time when other high-profile charities have recently closed, notably Kids Company and BAAF, why is this different?
Because the women’s sector is both a special case and a case with much to teach the wider charity sector.
Wherever you stand on the politics and policies of austerity, the crisis in the women’s sector is not simply about “government cuts”. Of course, public services and charities are short of money. But a major contributor to the demise of Eaves was the desire of large national charities to use local commissioning and competitive tendering processes as vehicles for expansion.
Most local, specialist women’s services struggle to compete. Since 2010, for example, one in six specialist refuges has closed. This is masked by a rise in “bed spaces”: generic provision, often by non-specialist organisations. Money is still spent, but it’s spent elsewhere.
For a woman fleeing abuse, a bed in a hostel or bed and breakfast is not the same as being supported in a specialist refuge.
The issue here is the loss of user-led, values-driven services, bent on social change as well as service delivery, activists as well as practitioners. But it is so simple for a large, national charity to be easier to do business with than smaller services, and to take over.
If you want to take over a women’s domestic violence service, start by claiming domestic violence is a gender-neutral issue. It’s not, but gender neutrality is fundable, whereas emphasising the need for women-only services is often portrayed as ideological, and working in communities to challenge and change the culture and attitudes that perpetuate violence against women, even more so.
Before it is too late, we’d better ask two questions: is there still a place for activism and grassroots change in the sector? Or, are we retreating to a trench from which we manage risks, which increasingly drive these public sector spending decisions?
Women’s charities are an example of services still routinely staffed and led by former service users. They were often started by women who had fled abuse, who had to fight to establish a service for others like them - in some cases literally squatting a building to found a refuge.
They’ve always taken funding where they can get it. They’ve never been “contracted out” by local councils: they’ve never been “in”. Gradually, as pots of state funding have been made available, they have accepted them gratefully, and local authorities have come to provide a large slice of their income.
Now, those local authorities are taking that funding - as though by part-funding a service they now own it - and tendering it to the cheapest bidder. But service users still vote with their feet; around half of respondents to Women’s Aid’s annual survey are running a service purely on reserves, to meet demand.
This is, of course, utterly unsustainable. A local refuge manager told me recently she is running seven refuges with half the funding she used to get. For every woman they take in, she has to turn 10 away. A survey by Women’s Resource Centre found that before the current financial year started, 80 per cent of women’s organisations had still to find more than a quarter of their funding for the year. We know the situation has worsened since then.
Many larger charities demand, and still get, “full cost recovery” from local government contracts, allowing for overheads such as research or business development functions to support their inexorable growth.
Yet I have literally never seen a local specialist women’s service that achieves full cost recovery from a funder. This means that, at a time when marketing is key to a charity’s survival, and when the search for the perfect “evidence-base” can be the enemy of what we know individuals want and ask for, they lose.
What these women’s services fought for, established and developed, is now just one “lot” in a tender, which a multimillion pound, non-specialist organisation is happy to compete for and win. It should be obvious that lacking the capacity or resources to establish an evidence base does not mean your service doesn’t have positive and lasting impact.
At least women’s organisations still exist. In many other fields, there are no local specialist charities left. We can blame a lack of evidence-base, or we can help them build one. We can blame public sector commissioners - or we can work together with them to develop the best services at local level.
Last week, public confidence in charities reached another new low. Charities are under fire for being too much like businesses, losing touch with both donors and beneficiaries. Yet the response to criticism is too often to complain at negative media coverage, rather than to put the house in order.
For many large, national charities, the objective – apparently without irony – is to become the “preferred provider” to public sector commissioners. The customer is the funder. But there is a choice here, about what sort of charity sector we all want to be part of.
We can blame the market, but we all know markets are amoral: it’s up to us to make choices about how we operate in them. And surely, if anyone is obliged to bring values to bear upon the market, it’s the charity sector. If we want to, large and small charities can come together to take control of the sector’s destiny - before it’s too late. Right now, they’re not even talking.