There are too many infrastructure bodies, says NCVO chief Sir Stuart Etherington

Speaking at the Big Assist Beacon awards in Manchester, he says organisations that do not deliver quality services or that duplicate the work of others should plan to shrink, merge, partner or close

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

There are too many voluntary sector infrastructure bodies offering similar services, according to Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

In a speech at an event in Manchester yesterday, Etherington said infrastructure organisations should shrink, merge or even close to ensure the survival of the services they offer.

"There are currently about 800 active voluntary sector infrastructure organisations," he said. "This might have been affordable in the era of generous government grants, but under the new financial settlement it is not.

"Today, there are far too many infrastructure bodies providing similar services in similar ways, competing with one another and with front-line organisations for a slice of a much smaller funding pie."

Etherington, who was speaking at the Big Assist Beacon awards, which recogniss infrastructure organisations that have excelled in the NCVO-run Big Assist support programme, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, said the "true champions of infrastructure" were more focused on safeguarding the services they provided than on the fate of their own organisation.

"They recognise that if a local or specialist infrastructure body does not have the money to deliver high-quality support services, or if it is duplicating the work of another organisation, it should proactively plan to shrink, merge, form a partnership or close."

He said he recognised that his message was a tough one, but infrastructure bodies were faced with a clear choice between "business as usual and hoping that the golden age of core government grants is returning imminently" or taking "a long, hard look both at the infrastructure landscape as a whole and their own role within it".

The status quo was not an option, he said, and infrastructure organisations had to adapt. "Infrastructure organisations are a vital part of a unique but fragile voluntary sector ecosystem that has more than proved its worth in the past," he said.

"The pressures of today mean they must all be willing to work in closer partnership with one another, as well as with government and funders. It is only by so doing that we will ensure the potential of the voluntary sector ecosystem is both preserved and realised for future generations."

Neil Cleeveley, chief executive of the local infrastructure body Navca, said Etherington’s comments were refreshing.

"Of course infrastructure needs to improve continually, but it is important that we recognise and learn from the progress so many have made," he said.

"Stuart was right to point out there are many other organisations, in our sector and outside, that could learn from the way the best infrastructure organisations have embraced change.

"I am delighted the NCVO is working with Navca and other national bodies to spread good practice and enable change."

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