EDITORIAL: Bleak future for groups working out on the fringe

Mathew Little

The voluntary sector is often feted for its ability to reach marginalised groups in society, to interact with the unpopular, the scapegoated or the neglected, free from the stigma of official state authority.

So research last week suggesting that as many as one in three social fringe charities (those working with drug abusers or the mentally ill, for example) are pessimistic about their chances of surviving the next few years should set alarm bells ringing.

The research, by Capital One Bank, cites a fall in donations, a dearth of volunteers and a lack of support from the private sector. More than one in ten of them are making redundancies. While a regular turnover of charities, with some going to the wall as new ones are formed, is inevitable, the report suggests something far more serious is going on.

Last month, the think-tank Centris, in its audit of UK civil society, claimed that the professionalised elite charities, with their large but passive memberships, were thriving at the expense of grassroots volunteering and civic engagement. Its findings were received somewhat dismissively by the sector, but they contained more than a kernel of truth. Indeed, the signs are that the plight of smaller fringe charities, if serious now, can only get worse.

Trusts and foundations, a major source of funding for these groups, are cutting back following the three-year stock market plunge. And last summer's Lottery White Paper with its plans for televised referenda and citizens' juries to determine the destiny of lottery funds, seems certain to entrench the in-built advantages of safe causes.

These trends could derail government plans to involve voluntary organisations in public service delivery. Ministers have specifically cited those voluntary groups working with socially excluded sections of society as potential partners in transforming public services. The £125m Futurebuilders fund has been set up to make these groups "fit for purpose" for this new role.

At present they are anything but.

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