Specialist VAWG sector in crisis

This guest post from Cullagh Warnock has been adapted from an original presentation given at a seminar - Navigating Commissioners’ Criteria for Public Funding: opportunities for partnership not competition - at Sunderland University in March 2017 and is available in full via the North East End Violence Against Women and Girls (NEEVAWG) website.

Cullagh Warnock is a freelance consultant working with grant-makers and the VCS.

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Over the last 15 years I have worked closely with VCS organisations in the domestic and sexual violence field, often as a funder but also as an advocate and champion. I have written recently about concerns that these small specialists are under increasing threat and that, if they close, we lose not just valued service providers, but essential agents for change. My fear is that we are all - funders, commissioners, policy-makers and large non-specialist providers – contributing to a situation that we would not actively choose. That we risk losing a much-valued network of specialists that we will miss greatly, and find hard to replace.

Whilst the VCS across all sectors are experiencing tough times, the specialist domestic and sexual violence sector faces some additional threats. Their previously fragmented/diverse funding streams have been rolled together by cash-strapped local authorities and put out to tender. Larger contracts have attracted bigger, non-specialist providers who often win the contract because they are better at bidding, although not necessarily better at delivering. There are specific circumstances that affect individual decisions, but the national trend is overwhelmingly that small specialists are losing out. We have seen services closing across the region, whilst others have drastically scaled back provision, at a time when need continues to grow exponentially.

We should care what happens to this sector because:

  • they provide good-quality, consistent, locally-rooted provision informed by the expertise of survivors;
  • they do prevention work in schools and the wider community that everyone agrees is essential, but no-one funds;
  • and, crucially, they have always driven wider societal changes around these issues.

If it wasn’t for the domestic abuse sector many of our local authorities would still tell us it wasn’t an issue “round here”, whilst our police forces would still refer to horrendous assaults as “just a domestic”. If it wasn’t for rape crisis, and similar centres, we wouldn’t hear the voices of those many victims of abuse who want justice, but can’t face our punitive legal system. And they continue to drive essential change, locally and nationally, through their campaigning and their institutional advocacy. The recent success in overturning Government policy on legal aid for victims of domestic abuse is just one in a series of notable successes, fuelled by evidence from, and advocacy by, this sector. 

So, we should all care, but more than that we should make sure we aren’t inadvertently contributing to a hostile environment for our small specialists. As funders, what do we value about these organisations – is it service provision or is it the policy, development or campaigning work they do? Do our funding programmes reflect those priorities?  If I was a commissioner I would want a vibrant local sector which includes smaller charities, bringing additional charitable funding into the area and actively driving local improvements.

And finally, to our colleagues in the large, non-specialist sector – think carefully before you compete with established specialist providers. Will you really be able to bring all they currently offer? Just because you can compete, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. If you truly share their commitment to bringing about social change on these issues, maybe you could find ways to support your local specialists instead?