Grants live on, thanks to strong advocacy locally

Leadership from the Directory of Social Change is important but it is work at local level that really makes the difference, says the voluntary sector adviser

I was pleased to see that the Directory of Social Change has launched the Grants For Good campaign. Over the past decade, grant funding from local councils and other public bodies has disappeared rapidly, to be replaced by more restrictive and inflexible contracts. Public sector grants now make up only 5.5 per cent of charity sector income, a decline of more than 60 per cent since 2004, according to the latest UK Civil Society Almanac.

Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the DSC, is one of the organisers of the campaign, which is supported by the community sector umbrella body Navca, the Charity Finance Group, the Lloyds Bank Foundation and Children England. He told me: "We know we are up against the tide of policy and austerity cuts, but the time is right to make afresh the arguments in favour of grants. Grants have many advantages and can deliver better outcomes for people and communities, especially when supporting smaller charities and community groups."

I often meet local councillors who understand how grants can support local voluntary action and community groups in their wards. In York, for example, councillors have a "neighbourhood grants fund" of up to £25,000 in each ward. It gives them the chance to respond quickly to local needs, enhancing their status and profile at the same time. But it's often the case that most funding has been converted to contracts awarded after competitive tendering. In these processes politicians have surrendered their influence to procurement professionals. The insights and political sensitivities that councillors could bring to decision-making about the use of scarce resources are lost.

Despite the general loss of grant funding, there remain local exceptions, such as Sefton on Merseyside, where the council for voluntary service has been led for many years by Angela White. She told me: "Sefton Council continues to provide many grants to local voluntary organisations. Both councillors and commissioners understand the importance of grants and why they are more effective than contracts. This understanding is built on several decades of partnership working, strong advocacy from Sefton CVS and confidence in the contribution of the local sector."

White has also secured a grants fund from her clinical commissioning group worth more than £1m over two years. As well as major grants for tackling older people's isolation and young people's mental health issues, there is a small grants "light touch" scheme supporting 40 grass-roots groups.

In south London, the Sutton Centre for the Voluntary Sector is running the Sutton Community Fund. This is a small grants scheme funded with £111,000 from Sutton Council. One grant of £3,800 went to Sutton Mencap, enabling 60 adults with learning disabilities to take part in cookery and dance classes. Susanna Bennett, chief executive of Sutton CVS, says the community fund helps to get small amounts of funding out quickly to communities where it can make an immediate difference.

National sector leadership from the DSC and others asserting the value of public sector grants is helpful. But as always it is strong advocacy at local level from CVS leaders and others that really makes the difference.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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