I've been meeting people who run local charities in Havering, Hartlepool, Derbyshire and Stoke-on-Trent, and I want to share some emerging trends, drawing on what people have told me at events organised by councils for voluntary service at which I have spoken.
Most of the people I met run charities with fewer than 12 paid staff - often fewer than five - and a large number of volunteers.
Coping with local councils' commissioning processes remains a big problem despite three years of the Cabinet Office's commitment to "making it easier for charities to do business with the state" and the availability of the welcome but weak social value act.
In Stoke, council grants have gone completely, whereas in both Hartlepool and Havering there remain substantial budgets for grants. It's clear that local sector leaders should still make the case for the retention of grant funding. At a Derbyshire conference for NHS clinical commissioning group chairs, I was much encouraged by their understanding of the potential for grants to support local charities that reduce visits to surgeries and sustain people in their own homes. This was due to effective advocacy by support organisations such as Community Action Derby.
I found widespread ignorance of social finance models such as social impact bonds and community shares, despite the hype at national level. It was hard work overcoming people's scepticism. My own enthusiasm is only recent and derives from the excellent work done by the YMCA in Perth, a local charity employing only 12 people, which has raised £500,000 from local investors to support new work with 200 unemployed young people. In this case the outcomes partner is the Department for Work & Pensions, which will reward the investors if the YMCA's support programme is successful. I have also seen what community shares can do to finance community buildings and rural services in counties such as Staffordshire - and Co-operatives UK now offers an excellent advice service.
When I asked people about their use of Gift Aid, the responses were disappointing. I am convinced that fewer than half of all local charities use this simple method to increase the value of donations. In Havering or Hartlepool, this means that the local sector loses out on as much as £1m in tax refunds. People are also slow to use new social media for fundraising. More than half of the local charities I met have Facebook and Twitter accounts and some have put promotional videos on YouTube, but they are failing to put these media to effective use. Most people have not heard of Tweetdeck or Hootsuite and hardly any have tried to use crowdfunding sites to raise money.
So there's an agenda here for support organisations that want to offer hope to local charities in hard times: use the social value act to argue for grant funding, explain new models of social finance, invigorate Gift Aid and train charity leaders in the use of social media.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser