Third sector spending cuts and its effects on charities

Wondered why over the last few years random charity shops have disappeared from the high street to be turned into independent coffee shops run by local busy-bodies? Or maybe why certain HIV clinics have shut down, never to be heard from again (except everywhere online because they never bothered to tell Google to remove the details)? Or why that charity you give a small regular amount to once a month/year has been on the horn more recently for you to up your donation? The truth is that the funding for the third sector has been cut dramatically over the last few years, so here is a (slight) rant about it from someone who works in the third sector – me.

I started getting involved in charity work at a young age, by pulling a few odd shifts in the local BHF shop, and after finding a career field I liked best and was good at, it seemed natural to move it into a sector that would appreciate my skills most. In the last six months I have managed to increase membership by 50%, and have increased public awareness to a point where for the last Open Day that Gwrych Trust (charity I work for) had, an audience of 20,000 people was listening online and national coverage was found in the press. But the thing that fundraising keeps coming back to is the stalwart of the field – grants.

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Most grant giving organisations get their funds from some sort of government operated scheme – in England, this is either through a large public sector organisation that wants to focus on a particular area (NHS with HIV for example) or through a local government operation that wishes to dole out their allocation from central government (council grants). In Wales this is slightly different (and its suspected that in Scotland and Northern Ireland this is mimicked in similar ways), where the Welsh Assembly is given an allocation as a state body, and they separate out the funds into representative organisations for different third sector fields (for example, the heritage sector is led by Cadw) or regional offices (shockingly there is more than one set of offices for the Welsh Assembly in Wales). Otherwise huge companies are sought out to give money to large-scale, national organisations, to fund either donation to smaller, local organisations or to fund their own campaigns. Mostly this means that there is a huge amount of money to hunt down and apply for, but over the last few years various pots have been dwindling to the point of no return, and government cuts have been the most severe and noticeable.

What does this mean for the future of charities then? A recent training event I went to basically said the same thing that political training events have been saying in America for the last few decades (and the UK for the last couple of years) – in order to succeed, increase your capacity. This means, donations, membership, volunteers, and anything that you can get for free from somebody else. Basically the way that Oxfam have been operating for years but without the hint of ‘we spent all our money on this TV advert to make you feel bad about watching Hollyoaks during the middle of the day’. In charitable terms, this is called ‘fundraising’ and anyone who works in this field is called anything from a development officer to a fundraiser, meaning anything from a high-powered business person keen on revamping the image of the organisation to be more inclusive to blah, to a guy on the street in a high-vis jacket with a clipboard irritating you over the sound of your music.

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The dropline of all of it, from all perspectives and levels, is that there is a desperate need to increase unrestricted funds – these are the gold. The difference between a grant and a donation is that a grant is paid on the expectation of a certain project being fulfilled (essentially like a contract, where you promise to build a fountain and they promise to give you fifty grand to do it), but donations are given freely and without expectation for use. You will be annoyed in all sorts of ways to do this throughout your life: TV adverts featuring worn-out donkeys, phone calls asking for you to consider giving to a children’s charity, knocks on the door to help out a local campaign, and, if you ever go out drinking in Bishops Stortford, a lady in a Macmillan t-shirt asking for spare change and rattling a tin. Methodologies employed range in complexity, skill and tenacity, but what has worked for me is an increase in digital visibility combined with a data management profile that employs telemarketing techniques, along with an open PR campaign that induces community liaison and engagement. I’ve used it, it works, and is proven cross-sector too (funniest donation story includes a Nisa-local manager that gave his monthly ‘choose a charity’ to one I used to work for because he ‘knew he would get his picture in the paper for it’). Others have different methods, and good luck to them.

Governmental spending cuts in this sector has not forced charities to the mat because this has been coming for some years, and, economically, was inevitable, therefore, charities of all levels should have seen it coming and should been prepared. Those that are having to shut services or centres are doing so because they haven’t figured out how to operate without being gifted funding from other sources. An example of a charity that has had their entire funding cut, and still operates as fully as it can in spite of this, is the Crescent Support Centre in St Albans and users should be immensely proud of the fundraising work of staff and supporters there. Those at higher levels of control (am looking at you aging Trustees and Directors) that are looking at a yearly loss despite fundraising efforts may need to start looking outside the box, because getting ahead of the game now may mean you stay open and functioning long enough to ride the economic power wave back into the black column, and even *gasp* turn a profit.

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