John Plummer examines why the government is phasing out its Strategic Partners programme by 2014
Last week's announcement by the Office for Civil Society that it will close its strategic partners programme was hardly a surprise.
Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, had for some time talked sceptically about the scheme, which pays a few selected charities millions of pounds to ensure the voluntary sector's views are heard in government. He told Third Sector last August that it was "a fairly illogical programme" with little rigour about amounts given and returns expected.
Like Capacitybuilders, the Commission for the Compact and the Third Sector Advisory Body, the programme was a product of the Labour years, and was perceived by some in the new regime as an indulgence, especially in a climate of spending cuts. Nevertheless, its closure will be acutely felt.
Forty-two organisations, including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Institute of Fundraising, Acevo and Navca shared £12.2m this financial year alone. The £1.09m received by the NCVO was a tenth of its income.
The programme was introduced in 2005 as a strategic funding programme by the Home Office, which had previously run an 'active partners programme' for charities. Responsibility was transferred to the Office of the Third Sector - later renamed the Office for Civil Society - when it was founded in May 2006.
The scheme gave third sector organisations unrestricted funding to be used for advising ministers, promoting the sector and undertaking research. It was a fairly informal relationship governed by a memorandum of understanding.
David Tyler, chief executive of Community Matters, one of the partners, says the emphasis of the programme appeared to shift from funding infrastructure organisations to the more general purpose of providing a voice in Whitehall. It helped small charities in particular get the ear of politicians, he says.
"Unless ministers make a concerted effort to get a broader range of opinions and evidence, there is a danger that they will always act on the views of a pretty small sample," he says.
OCS evaluations of the partners in 2009, released after Freedom of Information Act requests, painted a generally positive picture. Navca, the local umbrella body, was described as a "trusted adviser" and the NCVO was praised for raising the profile of the sector. But the coalition government evidently did not feel it was necessary to pay third sector organisations so much for fairly ill-defined purposes.
Two months after the election, Hurd wrote to partners saying a new, smaller scheme would be introduced. Many of them, especially major recipients like Volunteering England and the NCVO, began the process of cutting jobs without waiting for the precise figures.
Last week Hurd wrote again, confirming that the initiative would end and that existing partners could apply for transitional funding of £4m in 2011/12, £3m in 2012/13 and £2m in 2013/14. The programme, he said, lacked a clear purpose and money could be better spent elsewhere.
The shadow civil society minister, Roberta Blackman-Woods, described the abolition of the fund as a "drastic decision" that "shows that the government doesn't understand how important it is to build a framework of support for voluntary organisations".
Seb Elsworth, director of policy at the chief executives body Acevo, which received 8 per cent of its income from the programme, said it had been expecting cuts but not a tapering down to zero.
Ben Kernighan, deputy chief executive of the NCVO, says the funding helped it to "influence the government across a wide range of policy areas".
Toby Blume, chief executive of Urban Forum, concurs. "It gave us a voice and provided a conduit between our members, which are small organisations, and policy-makers," he says.
"It was never about being paid to be nice to government - quite the opposite. We felt it was our responsibility to be constructively critical."
STRATEGIC PARTNERS - HOW MUCH THEY RECEIVED IN 2010/11
£1,655,700 Volunteering England
£1,050,600 Mentoring and Befriending Foundation
£534,000 Social Enterprise Coalition
£484,600 Youthnet UK
£323,100 National Youth Agency
£275,953 East of England Black and Minority Ethnic Network (Menter)
£275,953 Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations
£269,300 Institute of Fundraising
£261,603 Community Matters
£252,602 Community Development Exchange
£242,143 National Council for Voluntary Youth Services
£210,125 Action with Communities in Rural England
£210,100 Community Foundation Network
£210,100 Citizenship Foundation
£196,993 Women's Resource Centre
£157,600 Youth Action Network
£154,812 Charities Evaluation Services
£145,624 Development Trusts Association
£126,000 Association of Charitable Foundations
£124,000 Social Firms UK
£123,711 Community Action Network
£118,195 Foyer Federation
£103,000 Co-operatives UK
£96,132 Urban Forum
£94,600 British Youth Council
£94,556 Consortium of LGB&T VCOs
£94,556 Charity Trustee Networks
£90,538 Church Urban Fund
£90,000 Social Enterprise London
£84,313 Third Sector European Network
£74,000 School for Social Entrepreneurs
£65,000 Plunkett Foundation
Source: cabinet office