Craig Dearden-Phillips: tough times - but a space is opening up for enterprising charities

Our columnist is optimistic about the longer term, although he says the immediate prospects are grim

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

I might not always sound sympathetic, but I do know these are hard times for the sector. If the public sector thinks it's been under the cosh, how about us? Some 70,000 job losses in 2011 on a workforce of less than a million and grants from councils hit hard - 48 per cent down in Liverpool last year and 35 per cent in Nottinghamshire this year. I applaud Eric Pickles kicking Nottinghamshire's backside about it. Civil servants' jobs should never take precedence over small grants to neighbourhood groups or voluntary projects.

As a sector, we get preoccupied with short-term survival. One hears increasingly of chief executives on sick leave and trustees walking away. We are probably at our most introspective for some time - at a time when the business models of many charities most need to change to adapt to new contours of need.

Politically, it hasn't been great either. It is clear that the big society is a dead duck and the attention of this government has shifted to the delivery of economic recovery. Public sector reform has been a mixed bag for the sector. The mealy-mouthed Open Public Services White Paper was a damp squib, quickly forgotten. Localism is hard to fathom at this stage, and don't let's even discuss the Work Programme, which I believe will fall apart unless the economy improves very quickly.

So what's good? Well, we are seeing some innovative ideas. Scope is raising a bond for several million pounds and using it to develop its retail operation. And Victim Support has joined with others in its field to form a wider coalition.

Charities are also continuing to campaign, a sure sign that the sector as a voice for the vulnerable is alive and well. Look at the campaign on mobility benefits for disabled people, which was supported by scores of disability charities, including the one I chair, VoiceAbility. The sector is, as ever, in fine voice.

Then there is the inexorable rise of the social enterprise. Charities and community groups now have the Right to Challenge where they believe they can provide a service better than a local authority. Soon the social value bill should be law - it will tip the scales a bit more our way when it comes to commissioning public services.

So what of the future? In the short term, it will be very slow going for us. It will take a long time for organisations that are, in effect, in turnaround to rediscover their originality and innovation.

But I am more optimistic about the longer term. Why? I believe a huge strategic space is opening up for enterprising charities between traditional public sector provision and a private sector that is no longer held in high regard. The question is whether we are ready to step into that space by scaling up our best solutions and organisations, using mechanisms such as Big Society Capital and wider partnerships. This is our biggest opportunity and our biggest challenge as the 2010s progress.

Contact Craig at

Craig Dearden-Phillips, is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now