Archives for the month of: June, 2013

By Kate Lee, Operations and Volunteering Manager, Blackburn with Darwen CVS

Blackburn with Darwen CVS Volunteer Centre has just been awarded a £50k grant that we will be using to develop an alternative model of business giving and volunteering. This Cabinet Office funding is from the Innovation in Giving Fund managed by Nesta. The idea came about because we wanted to think of ways to encourage small and medium businesses to give to the community. 98% of businesses in Blackburn are small and many are struggling to survive – this makes it difficult for them to be able to give financial donations to the community. So, our Community Hive’ aims to reverse the concept of business giving by asking skilled volunteers including local employees and students to offer short term practical help to support local people trying to establish businesses. This could include interior design for a café, setting up a Facebook page, help with market research, help with moving offices – any short term specific tasks that are needed to help kick start a business and make it a success. In return the business makes a pledge – that once established, the businesses that receive help from a volunteer will return the giving, with the offer of support for an unemployed volunteer, training, a donation, loaning equipment to a community group or agreeing to help another new business to start up. We hope that we will be planting the seeds for a culture of giving when it will have the strongest legacy – right at the earliest stage of business development.

Our first young enterprise was Chutney for Change, run by Rachel Gilkes. The idea behind Chutney for Change is that food that would be destined for landfill gets made into chutney – the proceeds of which go back into the social enterprise. With the help of student volunteers from Blackburn College and ASDA’s corporate social responsibility delegate, Rachel made a successful start to her business in Blackburn Market on 14 June. Bharat, the ASDA representative, had expertise in marketing and customer engagement which contributed to her launch success. His guidance to the volunteers and Rachel proved invaluable, as Rachel confirms:

“One of the students who came down was quite nervous and was kind of thrust into the limelight, going around a very busy market with samples and some crude instructions from me like “a big smile works every time” etc. She told me that she really enjoyed getting feedback from people on the chutney, particularly having been involved in making it. Bharat from ASDA took her under his wing as he tempted stallholders and customers alike with the samples, using his innate charm and well-honed patter from years in sales. She came back brimming with confidence, after watching him ‘work the crowd’ and using his tips; and I think she gained an enormous amount in that short time – skills that she will hopefully further develop with her time on placement with us.”

We’ve identified other skilled volunteers too. I was explaining the Community Hive concept to Helen, a volunteer manager in a local community group. Her background is in catering and has been involved in it for over 30 years. She offered her voluntary support and guidance to any young business wanting to enter into catering. Another skilled volunteer is Kenneth, a Nigerian film and documentary editor who was looking for opportunities to use his skills. He came into our office to register for volunteering within his skill set and through the Community Hive, we’re creating opportunities for him. He can do short YouTube advertisements or videos showcasing services of new and young businesses. He’ll be supporting the development of videos for an ‘upcycling’ business, and a poet, setting up a business to offer workshops in schools and with substance misuse services to help people in ‘recovery’.  

Monika is a Polish lady who has lived in Blackburn for over 8 years and wants to study social work at university so she came to us looking for a position that would support her application. She speaks four languages fluently and is a qualified translator. She too has kindly offered her support to new businesses when she is needed.

These are just some examples of things happening in the Community Hive. And what goes around comes around – the upcycling business owner is a graphic design artist by training, and she has offered to help out our poet with her logo and website!

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By Mike Wild, Chief Executive of Macc

Judging by the phone calls, emails and tweets that my colleagues and I have received, the report in Third Sector of comments by Geoff Little (Deputy CEO of Manchester City Council) addressing the Charity Finance Group conference earlier this week has sent a shockwave around the voluntary and community sector not just in Manchester but the rest of the country too.

It’s not the best idea to respond to a speech which I didn’t actually hear but the comments as reported do raise concerns about the way the relationship between local authorities and the sector could be developing. Context, as always, is the key.

Manchester is a city which has high levels of deprivation and has faced eye watering cuts to public sector budgets. In the ‘Graph of Doom’ scenario, the point at which Manchester City Council runs out of funding to deliver anything beyond its statutory obligations is sometime in 2018 – not that far away.

The Community Budgets model Geoff describes is emerging locally as the new approach to delivering some public services: lining up evidence-based interventions from all agencies and agreeing to share risks, investment and savings to achieve shared outcomes. Nobody is going to argue with this principle but the problem is the process by which it is put in place. So far, the model has been developed primarily as a means of contracting between the large public sector agencies with the voluntary and community sector fairly invisible in the process.

The first thing which struck me is that Geoff is quoted as talking about “a much more sophisticated approach to commissioning charities” but what he actually means is “suppliers” generally. That’s an issue for me because I repeatedly emphasise to colleagues in the council and beyond that the voluntary and community sector is more than just a cheap supplier. If a council sees this as simply a commercial relationship then it’s wasting enormous potential. Our recent State of the Sector survey showed that the sector in the Manchester City Council area makes a £721.8million Gross Value Added contribution to the city’s economy. That is over twice as much as our two famous football clubs contribute to the Greater Manchester economy.

As Kevin Curley points out in his response to Geoff, if you want a thriving sector you need to enable it to plan and develop. I agree. If you want that £721million contribution, you don’t force the sector to adapt to fit a model designed for public sector agencies. Just as there is a debate about whether exams test learning or the ability to pass exams, public sector commissioners need to learn smarter and leaner ways of investing in what the voluntary and community sector has to offer.

But I don’t want to give the impression that the Community Budgets model should be seen solely in terms of a single funding mechanism. It is perfectly possible to put in place preventative community based services through light touch processes which can capture the best of what small local groups have to offer. The hundreds of smaller and medium sized charities doing fantastic work in Manchester are simply never going to be interested in social impact bonds and complex payment by results mechanisms. The Work Programme is proof enough of how processes which work on paper break down when they get out into the real world. It’s not a novel insight to say that the key must be a mixed economy in the sector based on the eminently sensible principle that the process should be proportionate to the amount of money which is changing hands. This is a simple principle of keeping transaction costs at a reasonable level for all concerned. Yes, some organisations will be able to take part in complex spot purchase arrangements at commercial market rates while other groups, which do great work in local communities, need investment in much simpler forms. I’ve said it so often it’s almost a catchphrase: grants are not the opposite of commissioning. Many, from both the public and the voluntary sector, have written off grants as a mechanism which cannot be targeted or rigorous enough. I would go further: well-designed grants could be the mechanism to achieve some of the flexibility Geoff aspires to in the Community Budgets approach.

Geoff is also quoted as commenting on the slow progress in developing consortia in the voluntary and community sector. He’s right but I can answer his question about “engineering” consortia: don’t bother. The temptation for commissioners in the consortia is that it appears to make it easier for them to engage with. But it simply shifts the problem around the economy: it creates yet more transaction costs (time, money, energy) for all those organisations which could be spent on delivery. These structures develop where there is an incentive for people to form them. The single best thing commissioners can do to stimulate them is simply tell people what they might be interested in buying and be open to proposals – but it has to be done with clarity and consistency. Too often we’ve seen huge amounts of time and money being put into establishing consortia only to find out that the expected range of service delivery opportunities never materialises. We have seen examples across the country including our neighbours at GMCVO who have been supporting the development of a health and social care focused consortium (Converge) but it has become clear that the expected opportunities it was designed to bid for simply aren’t appearing.

In that context, our biggest successes locally have been achieved by building networking and relationships within the local sector which then allow partnerships to form between groups with a lead agency. Some of these such as Big Manchester have been designed to align with the Community Budgets model by building interventions which can complement and improve the reach of what the public sector agencies offer. That’s what our sector does at its best – works collaboratively to create benefit. These opportunities happened because we got round the table and developed a proper partnership.

I know Geoff well enough to be confident that he recognises that the picture is much more complex than the selection of comments printed in Third Sector suggests. We will keep working on this in partnership with him and his colleagues at Manchester City Council. If we are to stand any chance of beating the ‘Graph of Doom’ scenario and tackling the problems faced by local communities, we need to be working together more than ever. We’ll keep the conversation going, won’t we Geoff?