Infrastructure organisations must persuade the government that they provide essential services and are not just "an unnecessary layer of fat that needs to be trimmed", according to Justin Davis Smith, volunteering and development director of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
Davis Smith, who was speaking at the Big Assist conference for infrastructure bodies at the British Library in London yesterday, said the sector was at the end of a golden age for voluntary sector infrastructure funding.
Charities were "clearly not making our case strongly enough" when it came to infrastructure funding, he said.
"Looking back at the ‘golden age’, I think that if we are honest we would accept that, as infrastructure bodies, we didn’t do enough to demonstrate our value and prepare for the less rosy times that were bound to come," he said.
He said the problem existed at a national and local level, and that "local infrastructure continues to bear the brunt of cuts in local authority funding".
Davis Smith said that one problem was the word 'infrastructure' itself – more compelling language was needed to describe the activities of infrastructure organisations.
"We need to find a better way of describing what we do that doesn’t just sound like filling in potholes," he said.
He said better research was needed to showcase the true value of infrastructure.
Davis Smith said that the sector should be more open to "marketising" the work that infrastructure bodies did in order to make them competitive, and that sector bodies should not be afraid of competition, including from the private sector.
But he said the sector also needed to make the point that infrastructure is about providing advocacy and leadership for the sector as well as offering support, and that "it is in this respect that we might find that the market has its limits".
Davis Smith said the sector needed to lessen its dependency on old-fashioned grants and broaden its funding mix by selling services and entering into more commercial collaborations.
He said that if the sector wanted to be more sustainable, it must also look more closely at collaboration, partnerships and mergers."We must be clear that merger is just one potential outcome to arise from greater collaboration and that we should guard against seeing this outcome as in any way an inevitable consequence of closer working together," he said. "But while mergers should not be confused with collaboration, neither should we be fearful of it."