When I retired from Navca, the local infrastructure charity, in 2012, I decided to make a contribution in my own city of Derby by becoming a trustee of Community Action Derby. Five years on, I thought it was a good time to look at what leadership of local infrastructure requires today.
The fate of many local infrastructure charities has mirrored that of the local authorities they have worked with. As councils faced deep cuts in the period since 2010, so infrastructure charities such as councils for voluntary service have struggled to keep going. Development services for local groups, training programmes, funding advice, help with volunteer recruitment and support for trustees have disappeared in many areas or have reduced greatly. Derby City Council, like many others, has abolished its grants programme and no longer funds CA. Why then does the organisation continue to thrive?
I asked Kim Harper, who has been chief executive of CA for 10 years, what it feels like now that Derby City Council has cut all its funding. "In a way, it’s empowering," Harper told me. "We challenged the council’s decision to cut the voluntary sector budget three years ago and threatened a judicial review. We won some concessions initially. But senior council officers did not understand our critical-friend role and punished us with cuts."
Harper said CA would eventually have lost its council funding but cuts in grant would have been more gradual. "The council was not complying with the Compact so I felt we had to act," said Harper said, who won many admirers in the local voluntary sector for her courageous approach to challenging Compact breaches. CA now enjoys strong member support.
Harper spotted early on that a deeper relationship with the Clinical Commissioning Group would be vital to CA’s survival. This resulted in CA giving much higher priority to work that tackled health and social care issues. Volunteers were redefined as "healthy partnership volunteers". A member of the senior staff was seconded to the CCG to develop relationships with local charities. "This focus makes sense," said Harper. "Everything we do affects health and wellbeing, and our new focus makes it easier to evidence the impact of our work."
Harper emphasised the contribution of her staff team of 16: "They believe in what we do. We’ve built an empowering culture and we function almost like a cooperative." In a remarkable display of cooperation, every colleague has accepted cuts in hours and a freeze in salaries as CA adjusts to lower budgets. In return, Harper allows very flexible working and adopts what she calls good family-friendly policies.
Harper shows great respect too for her trustees: "After a strategic review last year they forced me to use our reserves to employ a business development manager, and it was the right decision. She is bringing in new resources to CA and enabling us to grow again."
I’ve urged Harper to offer master classes in charity leadership. If she does, book your place.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser