One lesson of our lockdown voluntarism is that as a nation, the UK does not lack volunteers or community spirit; it lacks the infrastructure to harness their potential for public benefit at a time of continuing need.
A colourful history of social action is reflected in the work of 166,000 charities across the UK, mostly micro and small organisations that are people-rich but money-poor. Research by Lloyds Bank Foundation suggests that these operate on average with around three volunteers for every five thousand pounds of income.
Everyone knows that a flourishing community will have a flourishing voluntary sector. But, with the exception of historic programmes such as CapacityBuilders and ChangeUp, the idea that a flourishing voluntary sector needs a nurturing infrastructure has evaporated. Over the last twenty years, to talk of local voluntary sector infrastructure has been seen as code for funding requests to support a web of network of agencies, sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing.
The case for infrastructure was lost over the austerity years. Good things happened; the best of those network bodies adapted and new infrastructure organisations emerged - including Pilotlight. Even so, with grant funding withdrawn, the overall result was a far weaker voluntary sector, anaemic in the context of growing need. Despite a welcome turn to place-based programmes, the conclusion of the 2015 Change for Good commission on local infrastructure remains true today, that “the most under-resourced areas tend to be those with high social need”.
Arguably, even at a time of austerity, it didn’t have to be so. There has been growth in community foundations. A concern for saving money through prevention has seen resources flow to experiments around social investment. A concern for better social outcomes through co-production has seen resources flow to new partnerships in devolved contexts such as Greater Manchester. Meanwhile, technology can shape new forms of collaboration. What was missing has been the core case for infrastructure.
The same used to be true for physical infrastructure in the wider economy, but that has changed entirely. There is a recognition now that a low-interest environment is precisely the right time to take forward work that has long-term gains. There is now a substantial policy agenda backing action and investment on infrastructure such as transport and energy networks. We need the same for the social sector. The economic models used point to how to resource the infrastructure for the voluntary sector, with patient capital and long-term planning.
The vital, voluntary services and community response during the lockdown has opened people’s eyes to the role of infrastructure. In the Wirral, the local Age UK charity - one of Pilotlight’s charity partners - pivoted almost overnight from in-person services to an all-remote support, becoming a significant leader in the local coronavirus response, and has won extra support locally of more than £600,000 over six months. At a national level, in the context of the #NeverMoreNeeded voluntary sector campaign, Government has put funding into the infrastructure for homeless and justice charities.
There is a risk that this is seen as temporary, about delivering food parcels during lockdown, instead of a continuing capacity to deal with challenges from loneliness, public health and community safety to climate adaptation. Foundations have stepped up in the crisis, but by bringing forward funding, there may be risks to funding in future years. What is needed is a patient framework of long-term funding – of the kind that the best localities have long sustained.
The economic case for infrastructure is strong. It is not about funding bureaucracy. It is about effective capability at the secondary level that creates value for the primary voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises that operate across the UK. This is something the cooperative sector has always done well - with central service organisations serving, for example, credit unions and value-adding networks such as Plunkett Foundation for community shops. It helps that one of the principles set out in the rules of a co-op is co-operation with other co-ops - a contrast to voluntary sector funding programmes which encourage competition. The best infrastructure is therefore collaborative and is bottom up, responsive and accountable to members, rather than top down.
Behind any successful infrastructure is collaboration. Over the lockdown, in my past and now my new role, I have been one small part of the coordinating group for the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign. What I have seen is a step change in terms of a culture of collaboration emerging, free for now from the egotism that characterised voluntary sector action in the past. Organisations such as Volunteering Matters, NAVCA, NCVO, Small Charities Coalition, Voice4Change, Women’s Resource Centre, Social Enterprise UK all working together, with an open embrace of those challenging the traditional voluntary sector, on gender, race and inclusion.
We need resources for the voluntary sector yes, but more than that we need a system for making the most of those resources. It is a word we should use with pride when it comes to the voluntary sector: infrastructure.
Ed Mayo is the new CEO of Pilotlight, having come from ten years leading Co-operatives UK and before that the New Economics Foundation. He is a former chair of trustees for Involve, the participation charity, and is author of Values: how to bring values to life in your business.