It is 40 years since Sefton Council for Voluntary Service was created to support the charity sector in the coastal areas north of Liverpool. For more than half of that time, Angela White has been its chief executive.
Her years in charge have seen great change and many challenges, none of them greater than the austerity of the past few years. She says the end of government initiatives such as Working Neighbourhood Funds means income has fallen from £5.7m in 2011 to £2.8m in 2014 and it has had to rethink "what a 21st-century CVS looks like". Ironically, in thinking about its long-term future, the organisation has gone back to its original purpose of providing support for local grass-roots communities and relying less on big government programmes.
One area it has avoided straying too far into, however, is service delivery. Because of recent cutbacks, many CVSs find themselves competing for service delivery contracts, sometimes against their own members. White says that many CVSs face a huge dilemma when deciding to bid for contracts, but Sefton CVS pursues contracts only if it is uniquely placed to deliver them.
"I'd like to think we focus on our core areas, such as participation," she says. "We manage the Young Advisors programme in Sefton. Nationally they are often embedded in local authorities, but here they're based with our staff. Part of the role is looking at the engagement of young people, which is similar to what we do with the voluntary sector."
One service delivery contract Sefton CVS has taken on would not ordinarily be associated with a CVS: its Merseyside Offender Mentoring programme supports prisoners released from HM Prison Liverpool and would usually be delivered by a criminal justice charity. But White says it took the scheme on because no one else was doing the work, and delivering the programme has "opened the doors for other voluntary sector providers in the area".
White also believes the CVS has an increasingly important role to play in helping voluntary organisations to work together and bridge gaps in services. "We want to encourage local organisations to collaborate more and broker relationships," she says. "For example, we are working with youth providers who previously delivered separate contracts, and we have been helping them to work closely with the local authority."
Last year, it developed Sefton4Good, a local giving initiative based on a model developed by Community and Voluntary Action Tameside. The scheme encourages local people to give their time, skills, money and resources to local good causes. White says it aims to provide a new way of giving without disrupting existing giving. "It is more about the local shopkeeper connecting with the local church," she says. "We're not going for larger private businesses, but for smaller ones."
Sefton Council has been badly affected by cuts in local government funding and further savings need to be found. However, White believes the good relationship the CVS has built with the local authority has helped to prevent crass cuts to the local voluntary sector. "There's been a very active dialogue with the council about the potential implications of cuts," she says. "By working with us, it has been able to make sure that the cuts have not had unintended consequences."
Having to cope with dwindling resources and ever-greater demand for services has created a feeling of common and moral purpose in the Sefton voluntary sector, says White.
It has also led to positive developments, such as more joined-up working. "There are solutions in communities and we need to harness them," she says. "But that's not to say I'm jumping for joy about the situation, because I'm not."