As I travel into the dusty and neglected corners of UK plc, I’m humbled by the thousands of local charities that just quietly get on and deal with the consequences of disadvantage. Rarely seen. Rarely heard. Sometimes chaotic. Frequently ‘on the edge’.
That’s probably why they work. They mirror what comes through the door. Staffed and volunteered by people who have lived through, or with, what’s affected the lives they touch: and moved to do something about it - often living vicarious existences hustling for their own survival.
As with all good relationships they start by building trust: often with people who are neither trusting of, nor trusted by, society. And then layer on the stuff that transforms chaotic lives. They establish empathy and a person-centred approach that would be the envy of many large-scale public services and private organisations.
In spite of - or perhaps because of - their size and locality, they get to grips with the most intractable problems people face: problems that cost us all dear. Unravelling the complex issues that lead women into sex work (Manchester Action on Street Health); supporting women facing historic or recent sexual violence in Newport (New Pathways), working with survivors of trafficking in Bristol (Unseen UK), or using peers to move young men on from drug-related gang crime in outer West London (Ignite Trust) .
These are not the "colluders" Louise Casey, then the government’s adviser on troubled families, talked about three years ago: their focus is achieving positive change to lives.
At their best they’re highly cost-effective: using skilled volunteers in a way that would make even Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, an advocate. And this is the first step towards rehabilitation for some; ‘gearing’ money from one source to secure another; adapting to the needs of those they serve, and providing a resilience and commitment to local people which shames larger organisations whose commitment is often no more than contract deep.
At their best they’re highly cost-effective: using skilled volunteers in a way that would make even Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, an advocatePaul Streets
If the Prime Minister David Cameron really wants to achieve a ‘great social transformation of Britain’ as he said recently he could do little better than put some of the millions of pounds he has ploughed into the Troubled Families programme and its like into these organisations.
Rose-tinted, perhaps. But isn’t that a prerequisite for any of us who believe it’s possible to make a difference? And it’s true that, as with all sectors and organisations, they’re not all good at what they do. Empathy doesn’t always map over into effectiveness; sometimes they go wrong, and sometimes they probably should merge or collaborate better. But seeing is believing. In the past three years I’ve visited and spoken to hundreds of small charities. Each one special. Each one unique. But not rare. We manage to fund more than 1,000 like them and could multiple that many times over on different issues with wider criteria and more money.
None of them ever will be, or want to be, household names. None of them send direct mail, door knock or chug anyone. None of them are well paid for what they do.
These charities and their realities are the 97 per cent of our sector, yet the column inches devoted to them often seem to be in inverse proportion to their plight. The issues that do affect them are the seismic shift from grants to contracts with its consequent impacts on income and staffing; approaches to outcomes which put standardisation and volume over value and depth; the differential impact of local government funding reform on the poorest areas and people, and the raw consequence of austerity that flows swollen through their open doors.
They are not rare but certainly endangered. Many will survive - but many won’t as austerity bites. Where it bites hardest, they will be needed most. Perhaps as a sector we need to reconsider just who we’d like to promote, and whose battles we fight? Who knows it might even push all of us up in the popularity stakes.
Paul Streets is the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation. @PaulStreets_, @LBFEW
An interview with Streets will feature in the June issue of Third Sector, published on 26 May.