I spent a day in Newcastle upon Tyne this month, visiting former colleagues and some of the places where I worked in the 1970s. I had read several of the reports about increasing poverty in the city published by Newcastle CVS and was expecting to find voluntary sector leaders at least sombre if not disheartened.
My first visit was to the Millfield House Foundation, which awards grants each year totalling £300,000 to tackle the causes of poverty in the north east and "to build a better society, one more equal and less divided". Its trust manager, Cullagh Warnock, explained that its funding is insufficient to mitigate the consequences of poverty, so the focus is on influencing the social policies that make life more difficult for poor people.
Warnock told me that the funding her trust gives to Citizens Advice Newcastle has enabled the charity to achieve improvements in the roll-out of universal credit. Another grant to the Regional Refugee Forum has improved local implementation of national policies on refugees and asylum seekers.
She convinced me that there is still enough discretion in statutory systems to make local campaigning work worth funding. Almost uniquely in my experience, Millfield funds a small number of charities for the long term: more than six years and sometimes indefinitely. The six funded charities work together to improve campaigning, negotiating and media skills, and Warnock recognises that there is a wider demand in the sector for learning of this sort.
My next visit was to Shona Alexander, chief executive of Citizens Advice Newcastle. She confirmed that helping people to cope with universal credit is a priority area of work, together with debt and destitution. Rising austerity and cuts in public services have affected her work and added to the stress experienced by volunteer advisers.
Alexander said: "Volunteers are increasingly upset and angry that they cannot do more to help clients, especially those who are homeless, subject to benefit sanctions or living in absolute poverty."
I was moved by her description of how Citizens Advice began in Newcastle. Set up in 1939 as a temporary service to support people during the Second World War, the issues they dealt with then were ration books, clothing coupons, domestic abuse, black marketeers, homelessness and family break-up.
"Now", Alexander said, "the ration books have been replaced by food bank vouchers, but all the other problems from 1939 still face us."
My discussion with Sally Young, chief executive at Newcastle CVS, began with her recent report on food poverty in the city. Young objects to the "normalisation" of food poverty evidenced by the growth of food banks and food donation boxes in most supermarkets. She has managed to persuade funders to support the provision of meals by charities delivering direct services, and welcomes the growth of community cafés offering cheap meals and of schemes for making use of food waste.
Young shared with me the dramatic statistic that one in three children entering Newcastle primary schools this year comes from a family where one or both parents do not identify as white British. The typical food bank bag of groceries does not take account of this massive cultural change. "Why," she asked, "should poor people be expected to eat food they don't like?"
My conversation with Lisa Goodwin, deputy chief executive of the regional network Vonne, was an opportunity to look at some more strategic challenges facing the sector. Vonne’s study Third Sector Trends has shown that organisations in the poorest areas are in the most vulnerable financial position. There is a growing divide between small and large organisations. Large charities are now applying for small grants from trust funds and winning smaller contracts, reducing the funding historically available for small charities.
Goodwin said: "This economy-of-scale practice is putting small, local charities at risk and led recently to the closure of one charity that had a good reputation built over many years."
More positively, Goodwin said that young people were setting up lots of high-street businesses with social purposes, such as community bakeries and food waste re-use cafés, filling gaps exposed by the rise of online shopping. She also offered an insight into the consequences of recent local government elections, when many more independent councillors were elected. These councillors, she claimed, were focused on their neighbourhoods, so it’s much harder to get policy changes agreed or borough-wide partnerships established.
Everyone I met in Newcastle said they were optimistic about the future of the city's voluntary sector. How can this be so in the context of growing poverty and an increasing struggle for charities to raise money?
Sally Young put it like this: "I see sector leaders being inventive. I see younger people coming into the sector and getting things done, being less interested in governance forms and using digital resources in new, creative ways.
"Things are getting worse for many of the people who live in this city, but there is no reason to be pessimistic about the voluntary sector's capacity to meet needs and challenge inequalities. We have done this in our collective past and will continue to do in the future."
Young retires in September after 10 years leading Newcastle's voluntary sector. I boarded my train from Newcastle back to Derbyshire convinced that her optimism is justified and that the determination to challenge social injustices is alive in this resilient city.
Kevin Curley is chair of Community Action Derby and a voluntary sector adviser