Wally Harbert: An open letter to Nick Hurd

While big charities get bigger with government money, the big society is languishing. Distributing funds directly to small, local projects is the answer, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert says more government money should be directed at smaller, local organisations
Wally Harbert says more government money should be directed at smaller, local organisations

Figures from the NCVO indicate that you and your government colleagues spent £14.2bn on the third sector in 2010/11. That represents 27 per cent of the sector’s total income, and most of it went to large charities. The allocation of this money has a profound effect on the structure of the sector and on the things it does.

You consult widely on government policy, but it is mainly the large, professionalised organisations that respond because they are able to take an overview of the sector and are familiar with the jargon used in consultative documents. The same organisations advise you on the strategic needs of the sector, and this has led to national schemes that swallow money by the tens of millions.

Top-down projects such as Change Up, Futurebuilders, Capacitybuilders and the Experience Corps have not covered themselves with glory. Many people in small organisations despair when they learn of the huge sums of money devoted to national schemes that, although laudable in themselves, make little or no impact on the vast number of local groups trying to meet needs in their areas. It was not a young left-wing radical who declared that government policies on the third sector "are not worth the paper they are written on". It was the Church of England's chief finance officer.

While big charities get bigger with government funds, another element of government policy – the big society – languishes for want of a mechanism to drive it forward. As you might expect, the big players are not impressed by this concept, which argues for the transfer of power and influence to local enterprises. But the recent explosion of concern about whether the new chief executive of the Charity Commission has the skills to handle the problems of small charities is a reminder that vast numbers of people in the sector are passionate about ensuring that the sector does not fall entirely into the hands of the big battalions.

A way must be found to distribute government funds to small, local projects that empower volunteers directly. This could change the nature of voluntary enterprise, and it might be achieved without an excess of bureaucracy if volunteer-led neighbourhood groups were invited to identify and tackle local problems.

Each group, which might be a free-standing charity or part of an existing charity, could be invited to apply for a government grant of, say, £5,000 a year for three years. They would be free to raise funds from elsewhere. Each organisation would have an advisory group composed of suitably experienced people from the area, who would offer guidance as required and vouch that government conditions were being met.

The scheme could be targeted at a range of different communities, although experience suggests that in severely disadvantaged areas it might be necessary to amend the basic scheme to employ a part-time member of staff for at least the first two years. Evaluation would provide valuable lessons for future development.

In your archives you will find a report written in 2001 evaluating projects along these lines that were sponsored by the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and Community Service Volunteers.

Of course, empowering local people carries risks. But as you know, so does the engagement of government contractors. The overall cost would be small by the standard of government expenditure on third sector projects. Two million pounds a year for three years would fund more than 400 neighbourhood projects.

Please Mr Hurd. Give it a go.

Wally Harbert is a former director of social services and UK director of Help the Aged

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