Infrastructure: Are we being served?

Steven Burkeman asks how effectively second-tier organisations in London are doing their intended job of helping the capital's front-line voluntary organisations. Are they part of the problem or part of the solution?

Running front-line voluntary organisations in London is tough. There are pressures from funders (finding them, keeping them happy), punters (ditto), local government and so on. To cope with all that, you sometimes need a bit of help. So a modest, second-tier support industry has grown up, funded in part by the anti-poverty charity the City Parochial Foundation, which last year took a hard look at whether its money was being well spent. The foundation asked Alison Harker and me to review the support needed by small and medium-sized front-line voluntary and community organisations in London, and whether they are getting it from existing back-up organisations. We interviewed more than 100 front-line organisations, and spoke with many funders, people in second- and third-tier organisations and commentators. Our full report, Building Blocks, is available at

Most voluntary sector people would think of a CVS as the first line of enquiry for front-line organisations seeking help, and usually it would be. We found some examples of really outstanding work, but, for various reasons, there is significant dissatisfaction with CVSs and many other second-tier organisations, despite the increased resources that have been pumped in. This led us to conclude that there are inherent problems with the CVS model. We confidently expect this judgement to be greeted indignantly by some, but we believe many insiders acknowledge and understand the problem.

And we want to stress that it's a structural problem, not the fault of CVSs.

Much of the work carried out by CVSs and other second-tier organisations tends to be done by people with insufficient experience of running projects.

This is because the work is low in the food chain and not sufficiently well-funded to attract people with a significant track record. These bodies are often in impossible positions in that they cannot effectively and independently represent the interests of local, small voluntary and community organisations. This is because they are either grant seekers themselves and competing with those they purport to represent, or they are holders of grant funds and would have difficulty in representing impartially the interests of those who seek funding from them.

Some second-tier organisations are seen as having lost touch with groups on the ground, and as undemocratic and unrepresentative (although it is CVSs especially that are expected to be representative). The most highly regarded ones are those that have found ways of keeping close to the organisations they seek to support, getting feedback to enable them to provide services that front-line organisations need and in ways that suit them.

But some CVSs and other second-tier organisations seem to have difficulty engaging with all sections of the community. A number of interviewees questioned their ability to relate to black, minority ethnic and refugee organisations.

Engagement with such organisations is especially important in London.

CVSs often seem overwhelmed by the scale of the tasks and expectations they face. The pursuit of funding streams in order to finance the core operation has diverted many of them from the paths they were intended to follow. In seeking to be all things to all front-line organisations, as well as meeting the demands of those whose funds they have pursued, many have lost their sense of purpose and focus.

Neither my co-author nor I is a natural free marketer, but we found ourselves concluding that there should be a shift in emphasis in funding away from the direct support of CVSs and many other second-tier organisations, which share some, though not all of the problems faced by CVSs. Instead, money for support services should increasingly be directed on a ring-fenced basis at front-line organisations so that they can 'buy' the services they need from wherever they choose. Some bodies will doubtless go to the wall, but the more creative and responsive ones will flourish because they are meeting real needs, and doing so in a highly professional manner.

Finally, funders that make unnecessary demands on front-line organisations are helping to generate the demand for second-tier support that they, the funders, then end up paying for through their grants. At least part of the help that small front-line organisations think they need is sought in order to meet the tick-box requirements of funders. There is, then, a kind of strange, self-perpetuating inter-dependence of grant making, grant seeking and second-tier support. If we may leave you with a question, which of the players in that little game do you think is best positioned to change things?

Steven Burkeman is a consultant on philanthropy. The City Parochial Foundation is holding a conference to discuss Building Blocks in London on 1 March.

Contact: 020 7606 6145 or

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