Barbara Gubbins

Barbara Gubbins, chief executive of the County Durham and Darlington Community Foundation

Vital lifeline in an uncertain climate

Social enterprise, the voluntary sector and community sector continue to play a critical role as political shockwaves take their toll, says Barbara Gubbins, chief executive of the County Durham and Darlington Community Foundation.

As we embark on 2017, it is interesting to reflect on the last year’s political shockwaves – firstly Brexit in the summer and more recently the election of Donald Trump. Although there is a huge divide of water between the UK and the USA, it appears the determinant is similar - a vote for wanting to be heard.

From a North East voluntary and community perspective, the effect of Brexit has yet to be experienced. The sector is still recovering from the recession in 2008, the demise of the Northern Rock Foundation and the colossal public sector cuts. These three elements in particular have hugely impacted on charities and community groups in our area who have been fighting to keep their heads above water and meet the need, whilst at the same time ensure they meet ever-demanding governance and compliance controls.

Unfortunately, the devolution debate and uncertainty has not helped but it is hoped that the North East can retain cohesion to help strengthen its positioning in the future. Despite this, the sector moves on, just ‘gets on with it’ and continues to plug critical gaps that can no longer be met by public bodies.

However, there is a growing awareness by the larger voluntary sector groups that they need to review their business model, develop more sustainable income streams and commercialise their services. The changes to welfare benefits, social prescribing and commissioning will increase the pressure for charities to potentially charge for provision or investigate the social enterprise model.

The smaller grassroots groups, who are almost entirely made up of dedicated volunteers, have been less affected as they have their regular supporters and fundraising techniques in place which are tried and tested. This includes uniformed associations, sports clubs and activity-based organisations. In County Durham they can tap into Area Action Partnership funding and small grants from the Community Foundation.

It could be concluded that the term ‘voluntary’ sector is no longer fit for purpose and may need to be addressed sooner rather than later, with the impetus to increase the number of professionals who volunteer and a requirement to understand how this vast conglomerate of bodies fits together.

As Brexit starts to draw nearer, planning for the loss of European funding will be essential. The North East has benefited significantly from this income stream but it may be an opportunity for organisations to do some blue sky thinking.

Compliance with European programmes is intense and the high level of reporting and defrayed payment schemes can be extremely difficult and onerous. Although charities and community groups need to continue to be robust in their governance and management processes, freeing up this element of time could be liberating for them and their clients and enhance long-term outcomes. One thing is certain – change will continue and should be addressed and accepted.

From a community foundation perspective, we have seen changes in the nature and behaviour of those applying for funding. Although we are largely a small grant-maker, uptake from larger organisations has grown - no doubt putting a strain on their resources as they fish in ever-increasing pools for core funding. We have a responsibility to understand the priorities of the communities we serve, and how we best engage with them and our donors in order to make the most impact.

Despite the recession, the giving in our county and that of our sister community foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, has significantly been boosted, which is very encouraging. But we must continue to tell the stories of what is being provided by our sector and where the gaps are in order to expand the band of philanthropists.

The North East has been incredibly fortunate that Jonathan and Jane Ruffer have settled in Bishop Auckland, with the vision to transform not only a town but a region. This is inspiring and evidences thoughtful philanthropy. If this model of developing people through volunteering is observed and replicated, the sector will be strengthened and communities truly regenerated.
So although there is much to consider, the future is bright as long as positivity, foresight and courageous leadership are embraced as the UK enters a new era.