The Big Society Needs You! 5 Tactical Steps For Voluntary Organisations

The Big Society cannot succeed without the voluntary sector – and that’s a huge advantage in the long run for voluntary agencies. Here are 5 tactical steps for any voluntary organisation that is feeling the squeeze at the moment.


The public spending review will create a harsh climate for many voluntary organizations in the next few years. But if they can survive this period of austerity, there will be unexpected opportunities ahead from The Big Society. This is because The Big Society will see some early wins, but ultimately the limitations of the model, and the hardships caused by the spending review, will begin to bite.

Politically The Big Society cannot be seen to fail, so this is the point where voluntary agencies will be in a better position to negotiate contracts to plug some of the serious gaps in statutory service provision – and to turn The Big Society into a viable project.

So one survival tactic for voluntary agencies hit by the current spending review is to develop a sophisticated critique of what will and what won’t work within The Big Society framework. To then embrace The Big Society rhetoric and apply it to service delivery where this is possible; and, where this isn’t possible, to develop specific services that correct Big Society flaws.

These voluntary organisations need to consolidate rapidly now to absorb any immediate funding cuts and avoid insolvency – but without just resorting to a slash-and-burn strategy. There are 5 particularly tough challenges ahead that have to be factored into this consolidation:

(1) To retain leadership capacity at the top of the organisation – and redefine the leadership role. Voluntary organisations need entrepreneurial talent at the top to reposition the organisation to pick up on future funding opportunities. Leaders must have emotional literacy to engage and motivate stakeholders throughout these anxiety-provoking changes. The Chief Executive and Chair (and trustee board) need to be closely aligned – they need complex strategic planning expertise, sophisticated financial modelling, and a shared understanding of how change happens effectively.

(2) To design an organisational structure that can be stripped down to its core to ride out the cuts – but with the capacity to expand in the future when new financial opportunities present themselves. This structure needs to serve as a hub onto which you “dock” additional teams when new service contracts are won. The workforce needs a mix of freelance, permanent, and time-limited staff working in flexible roles. There needs to be a well-considered involvement of volunteers and service users in the structure. Everyone involved will need resilient personalities to adapt to changing demands.

(3) To rethink the organisation’s service delivery model to ensure that it is sustainable. To go back to the organisation’s core purpose and core values, and then consider whether there are leaner ways to meet the needs of service users. Some services and service users do fit the Big Society model of volunteerism and self-help – so some of these services that are currently provided by paid staff could be delivered safely by a blend of service users, volunteers and community groups. This is an excellent way to free up staff to do the high-level tasks that they are best suited to do. But remember that this model changes the relationship between the organisation and its volunteers and service users to something more ‘professional’ – they will make bigger demands of you, and vice versa – and they need high quality, supportive supervision to ensure a consistent standard of delivery. Who will provide this time-intensive development? Here is a powerful presentation by Sam Hopley to trigger some ideas.

(4) To identify the cracks in The Big Society framework, and spot the service gaps arising from the spending review – then seek out new service opportunities there. Local authorities have statutory duties that could be hard to sustain in the chaos of restructuring and cuts, and there are many marginalised community groups that don’t sit easily within The Big Society model – either through stigma, or through not having the resources, knowledge, expertise or resilience for self-help (eg. chaotic drug users, ex-offenders, people with enduring mental illness or learning disabilities, long-term homeless, street sex-workers, and refugees). Voluntary agencies need to put the case for why these services are essential, and why they are best suited to deliver them in the most cost-effective and accessible manner. This requires slick expertise in full cost recovery, social return on investment, evidence-based service development, and outcomes evaluation.

(5) To monitor the real impact on people’s lives of the government’s sweeping reforms. The abolition of government targets will make it much harder to track the negative impact of the cuts on service delivery. It will also make it harder to assess the disruption caused by the major restructuring of the public sector. The localisation agenda will make it that much harder to connect up data and spot the over-arching trends. Voluntary agencies will be the closest witnesses to the hardships caused by service cuts. They can draw on this painful first-hand experience to spell out the negative social consequences of not providing services – and use it as a lever to secure funding to provide decent services where they are most needed. This information needs to be pooled to establish a nationwide picture of the human cost behind the programme for economic recovery – so it’s worth getting involved with NCVO’s debate.
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