Voluntary sector management consultant Margaret Bolton believes too many voluntary organisations are struggling to provide services without adequate systems in place. "For many of them, it's completely unsustainable," she says. "If you don't have adequate infrastructure, you're going to fall over."
Bolton is the co-author of Foundations for Organisational Development: Practice in the UK and USA, a report on how funders support organisational development. The study, published in January, was jointly funded with a grant of £20,000 from the Northern Rock Foundation and the Baring Foundation.
These days, many grants are accompanied by some degree of business or project planning, whatever the money is actually for. Bolton's report looks specifically at programmes designed to strengthen the infrastructure of organisations or groups of organisations.
Infrastructure support is something a number of UK foundations are already providing to some extent - the report lists 15; but there hasn't been much of an overall focus on the issue, and certainly not as much as in the US. "We wanted to survey existing practice, set out the range of different approaches that are taken to organisational development and flag up what works and what doesn't," Bolton says.
To some extent, this is a mapping exercise. It works out some detailed models and options within parameters that range from cross-sector work to very specific types of assistance - from office services to leadership skills - while stressing that the most important thing is to work out which of the various options best suit particular programmes.
It also highlights the important point that the relationship between government and the voluntary sector is not the same in the UK as it is in the US. "The context is different, but not that different," Bolton explains.
The six recommendations are mainly to do with building networks (both within and outside the UK), sharing information and getting the information that will make it possible to improve practice. The area of study is not sufficiently developed to make any detailed conclusions, and that is not the purpose of the report. It is, however, a usefully detailed analysis of a topic that is moving up the grant giver's agenda.