Outside Edge: Let's make funding an issue

Organisations that are unwilling to deliver the Government's social policies are being squeezed, so let's push for open grants programmes, says Tash Shifrin.

Two announcements rang out last week: the General Election has been called and the Charity Commission has a brand new logo. Neither has set the public imagination alight.

The commission has apparently been inspired by Opal Fruits. Remember them? "Made to make your mouth water," ran the jingle. "Fresh with the tang of citrus..." The commission says it is planning several more logos - to recall different flavours, perhaps?

The election is leaving a nastier taste in the mouth. Debate kicked off with a hideous round of competitive immigrant bashing. The weeks ahead could be horribly similar.

One thing is clear: this election will not be about the voluntary sector.

Nor should it be. If holding Parliament to account means anything at all, it really ought to be about Iraq.

Interestingly for the voluntary sector, in these times of political disillusion and discontent the election could show that it is more in touch with the public than the politicians are.

It will be interesting to see, for example, how voter turnout measures up against the number of people who gave to the tsunami appeal. And which will best reflect the political mood of the country, the election or the Make Poverty History demo at the G8 summit in Scotland in July?

This election is also a good time for the sector to make demands of the contending parties. Funding is one area worth considering. Increasingly, funders are tying money to specified programmes or outcomes. Local authorities and other public bodies are shifting from open grants programmes towards service contracts.

Trusts and foundations are also starting to link funding to their own projects, as the winding-up of the Carnegie UK Trust's grants programme shows. Over at the Big Lottery Fund, the vast bulk of funding is now tied to themes and outcomes set by government.

Fears that ministers might raid the BLF coffers for their pet projects are being borne out. Last month, education secretary Ruth Kelly scooped up £45m of lottery cash for the School Food Trust, the quango she is setting up to improve school meals.

Sweetly, Kelly announced the funding herself. She clearly didn't feel any need for the supposedly independent body to make its own announcement.

The new funding regimes are putting the squeeze on organisations that are unable or unwilling to deliver the Government's social policy agenda.

The big charities can get by with their substantial voluntary incomes.

Smaller community groups cannot. Grants are their lifeline.

So why not press the parties for this at election time: a commitment to substantial open grants programmes in both central and local government?

Just a thought.

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