Is the sector Surviving or Thriving in 2016?

The results are in on our 8th annual VCSE sector survey ’Surviving or Thriving’ and the most significant factor in this year’s survey is no surprise - increased demand for services alongside increases in the number of people organisations are supporting. A significant 72% have had an increase in the numbers of beneficiaries, no doubt down to the impact of cuts to local authority budgets and services, welfare reform and increases in those living in poverty and debt.

However, the increase in demand and beneficiaries isn’t matched by a significant increase in income, nor is it matched by a corresponding increase in human resources. The majority of respondents in this latest survey reported no change to numbers of volunteers or paid staff which indicates the sector is attempting to meet increased demand without expanding its human resource capacity.

There are indications that some staff are working unpaid hours to meet the increased demand and that time spent with beneficiaries has had to be reduced by some to enable staff to manage demand. There is also evidence that beneficiary’s needs are more complex with more people with multiple needs including more demand for welfare rights advice and support.

The majority of respondents very much reflects the regional voluntary sector picture being predominantly small to medium sized organisations with a turnover between £10,000- £1m. The number of those with no reserves to fall back is still worryingly high and for those that have reserves. For those that do have reserves, 53% responded that they will or are likely to draw on them in the coming financial year.

The patterns over the last few years illustrates an increasing reliance on reserves, loss of funding, and organisations facing significant continued rising demand, but with continued public sector spending cuts and limited reserves, they are now in a fragile state to respond appropriately.   Despite no organisations saying they will close in the next 12 months, 14% say they may close alongside another 14% who say they may merge with another organisation.

One respondent summed up the issues well in this comment:

“The VCSE provide services that take the strain of many statutory bodies, which themselves are already under pressure.  Many people in the community will be left without services to support them. Food banks are operating, high levels of people living in poverty, the health and well-being of people is declining, now is a time when VCSE should be operating at its best to address these issues, but sadly due to cut backs voluntary agencies are closing and this will have a catastrophic effect on those who are most in need.”

In the current climate of reduction in public sector funding for services and welfare reform impacting on those most in need, the VCSE is an essential lifeline. Government at local and national level needs to fund and support the sector to deliver the services and support that vulnerable people rely on, otherwise those services will be lost; people will suffer and be pushed further into crisis, debt and poverty. There is a strong message about the need for core funding and infrastructure support for local smaller community organisations and to recognise them as valuable assets. There is a need for more proportionate and accessible public sector procurement and commissioning processes and greater embedding of the Social value Act.

We need government and the public sector to take a longer term view and invest in the VCSE and local communities to prevent escalating needs and ultimately a greater draw on the public purse.

This survey was undertaken pre the Brexit vote which has highlighted a need within the north east to build ‘community cohesion’ as it is now called.  There is clearly a role for the voluntary sector here in providing access to the knowledge, engagement, relationships and networks that will support this but this needs to be resourced appropriately.  

As one respondent said:
‘Support us- you will miss us when we are gone’