Thursday, 30 September 2010

Funding the BIg Society

Last Friday the Children England north east regional group had a very interesting seminar about 'Social Impact Bonds' given by Chris Ford of Newcastle University.

This is an idea dreamed up by the New Labour government, Jack Straw wrote a paper about it last year. It was in the news recently with the first pilot in the Midlands to keep young offenders out of prison once they have been released. The idea is to get private money into public services. As far as I understand it, it works like this:

The Government contracts with a 'Delivery Organisation' to address a social problem (such as getting young people into training or employment); the Delivery Organisation and government agree very precise, measurable outcomes (e.g. X number of young people each in continuous training or jobs for at least 24 months); the Delivery Organisation works out how to do this perhaps by sub-contracting to other organisations (including the voluntary sector); and the Delivery Organisation also raises the money from charitable trusts, philanthropists and other lenders. The work starts, obviously with rigorous reporting and monitoring. At the end of the contract, if the Delivery Organisation has delivered the desired outcomes then the Government pays a dividend to the funders.

It looks as though everyone benefits. The young people (beneficiaries) get effective help; the Delivery Organisation (not government) carries the risk of getting the work done; it and the sub-contractors get paid for their work; the government gets things done without having to put the money up front; and instead of just giving money away, the investors may get a return on their investment which they can put towards more good works.

Government says it can pay a dividend from the savings it will have made from services it would have had to pay for if the young people not been in productive training or employment.

Here in the North East apparently Northumberland and Sunderland Local Authorities are working with the Young Foundation (who helped develop this model) to see whether local government could commission services in the same way. I might trust central government to pay on results; given the perilous state of their finances trusting local government to pay up is a different matter.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Big Society

Every year I am inspired by the Great North Run. For nearly an hour a torrent of people pass the end of our street on their way from Newcastle to the sea, all on a personal quest and most raising money for good causes, including Children North East! I am sure David Cameron would approve of this mobilisation of ordinary people willing to help others through sponsorship, perhaps he would call it the 'Big-Hearted Society'?

One of the runners was Alastair Campbell, former communications adviser to Tony Blair. I was delighted to be invited by the Board of VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) to meet him over dinner that evening. It was a great evening, Alastair is a very entertaining guest.

The subject of the evening was the 'Big Society'. Clearly it is David Cameron's 'big idea' and it is obvious he is not going to give up on it. Trouble is no one really knows quite what it means. All we have are these pronoucements:

An army of 5,000 professionally trained 'community organisers'.
A Big Society bank funded from dormant bank accounts to provide money to community groups.
Neighbourhood grants for the poorest areas to help people set up local groups and social enterprises.
Allowing civil servants to do voluntary community work.
Having a national 'Big Society Day' to celebrate local community action.
New funding for social entrepreneurs to get more social enterprises going.

But when it comes to what the Big Society will actually do it seems to boil down to pubs run by community groups; volunteers staffing libraries; and kind hearted souls taking in their neighbour's abused children.

Ministers have quickly jumped onto the bandwagon so that the Big Society can mean almost anything they want it to mean. And this was Alastair Campbell's main point - don't wait to be told, the voluntary and community sector should grasp the opportunity and define what the Big Society actually means. And of course it is voluntary organisations and community groups who are the heart of a 'Big Society'. We are already here on the ground working for the benefit of local communities, engaging people in voluntary work and (in many cases) supplementing public services.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Youth Link

30 years ago in 1980 Children North East started a 'Family Link' service in Newcastle which recruited parents as volunteers to befriend and help other parents who were going through difficult times. The idea worked and in the following 25 years we set up 'Family Link' projects in many parts of the north east.

Two years ago we reasoned if the model worked for adults, why not for young people too and so 'Youth Link' was born in Sedgefield. Youth Link recruits and trains young people to befriend and mentor other young people; it matches them with young people who are are in difficulty of one kind or another and supports them to help where they can. The volunteers complete a training course which is approved by an external body and can lead to an accreditation. And the service model has the National Youth Volunteer Network REACH award and is accredited by the National Mentoring and Befriending Foundation.

The model worked so well that last year we successfully applied to the Big Lottery for grants to set up two more Youth Link projects in Tynedale and Blyth Valley. The volunteers really enjoy the training which includes a team building weekend building rafts, bridges and the like. Most volunteer because the experience is likely to help them in their careers but get a lot out of getting to know and assist young people they would otherwise never met. The young people who benefit from the support relate more quickly and easily to contemporaries rather than adults and have been helped through difficulties like getting into trouble with the police, falling out with parents, suffering ME and been supported to make new friends, find new worthwhile activities and get on better terms with parents and teachers.

This evening we are hosting a celebration for all our Youth Link volunteers to award them their accreditation certificates and to thank them on behalf of the young people they have supported and Children North East for the contribution that they make.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Let's 'Lead not Plead'

Last night BBC North broadcast a debate about the impact of public sector cuts on the North East. I was pleased to be in the invited audience to point out that local authorities must be mindful to make cuts which will not result in them spending more money in the long run (see my blog 5th August).

Although people were worried about the potential scale of the cuts there was general agreement that the country cannot afford the present level of public expenditure. Our region has the highest percentage of public sector employees but as was pointed out, that isn't because the public sector is too big but because the private sector is too small compared to other regions. That is why abolishing One North East, the Regional Development Agency makes little sense at just the point when its investment in the low carbon industries of the future is beginning to bear fruit in electric cars and sustainable energy generation from wind and waves.

The tone of the programme was gloomy. We have a tendancy in the North East to blame central government for our troubles. Ed Cox, Director of ippr north (Institute of Public Policy Research) tried valiantly to move the discussion away from blaming others to taking responsbility for ourselves - to 'lead not plead' but without success. Currently the voluntary sector is particularly prone to pleading for public funds. Yet not so long ago it was voluntary organisations that were valued for their innovation and courage. The voluntary sector has become too reliant on public money in the form of grants or contracts which inevitably means doing what other people ask us to do rather than take the initiative ourselves.

There is no doubt that the voluntary sector will be hit hard by cuts when they come. As Children North East has already found, local authorities will always chose to cut money for other organisations before they cut their own services and staff. Rather than moaning, blaming, doing nothing or simply hoping for the best now is the moment for voluntary organisations to take the lead. Instead of looking to the public sector to know what is best and give us the money to do it, we should use our collective knowledge of the needs of the most vulnerable members of society to commission the services needed ourselves. Larger charities and 'umbrella' organisations like VONNE and CVS bodies are well placed to take on this strategic commissioning role convening coalitions of smaller organisations to develop and deliver solutions. They also have the relationships and authority to negotiate with public bodies, grant makers like charitable trusts and philanthropic investors. We often forget that in a time of cuts in public expenditure the voluntary sector can bring extra cash to the table by accessing funding that is not available to public bodies.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Thinking ahead

Just back from holiday. It is good to get away from the things which fill every day at work and take a little time to think about the future for Children North East.

The next six months are going to be extremely tough. For the last decade or more like other children's charities Children North East's income has mainly been from Public Sector grants and contracts which will be severely reduced. It is inevitable that some services funded this way will end and unfortunately some staff will lose their jobs. Even staff who keep their jobs are likely to lose some hours. A few services are funded from grant making bodies such as the Big Lottery, they will be safe for the time being. Competition for new funds from those and bodies such as charitable trusts will be very fierce and cannot be relied upon. They are more likely to fund new ideas based on solid research rather than existing projects. Income from charitable giving has only ever been a small part of our income (10%) and is unlikely to increase. We do not have large reserves we can fall back on to fund services.

The future has to be in social enterprise - offering useful, effective, value for money children and family services for sale to schools, GPs, local authorities and others. We have begun to package and market many of our existing services in this way. I am confident that this will work however I fear it will take time to establish, sadly more time than we have before the cuts come at the end of March 2011.

We still don't know what the Coalition Government's 'Big Society' actually means in detail but it certainly supports the role of volunteers. Children North East has an advantage here because we already know how to recruit, train, deploy and support volunteers to provide good services. It would be nice to have an accreditation like 'Investors in Volunteers' to demonstrate excellence in this. I am sure there is an important future for volunteers in Children North East.

But what about the longer term? What should Children North East be like in 3 years time? As a social enterprise I am certain that we will grow and in time we ought to be able to make a small surplus, how should we use that for the benefit of children and young people in North East England? The answer is in our aims: 'to promote the rights of children and young people and counter the effects of inequality on them, their families and communities'. We should be speaking out on behalf of children, young people and families. What if in three years time Children North East were in effect the 'Children's Commissioner for North East England'? Publicising our knowledge of the crucial issues affecting families and empowering children and young people to make their own voices heard about the things which effect them to the public and policy makers.