A few weeks ago, the Dash Charity in Slough, a Women’s Aid refuge organisation, lost its core local authority funding to a London-based housing association; the result of the local authority putting those services out to tender.
This is distressing for the well-established charity concerned; its staff and board, past and current beneficiaries and all those who have helped it over the years.
It was the Dash Charity which originally developed these services for local women, and, as well as specialist skills, it has built up important social capital, through the goodwill of hundreds of supporters.
Can the incoming organisation really provide the same value to current and future beneficiaries and to the local community?
I recently attended a very thought-provoking EUConsult Conference in Frankfurt with my European peers. The learning and benchmarking included a visit to the European Bank (pictured) and cutting edge perspectives on digital development.
I am now busy organising next week’s conference for MDN for which I am lead convenor. Both MDN and EUConsult are networks for freelance consultants and trainers who specialise in supporting the voluntary and community sector.
Our members have long histories of working in the ‘third sector’. Supporting charities is our job, and it’s how we earn our living. Many of us also spend time and energy as volunteers and activists, trustees and chairs, often working pro bono in our local communities or for tiny charities. We do it because we have the skills, because we want to help and make the world a better place. And because this engagement builds our own knowledge and perspectives, and, probably, makes us better consultants.
And just like smaller charities, we are finding that some of the space in which we have built expertise is attracting larger, less specialised organisations, often as a result of competitive tendering. For example, many academics are thoughtful and caring people and there has been a long relationship with the voluntary sector. But something different is happening when universities, with an increased focus on income generation, are bidding against local consultants to evaluate not-for-profit projects and activities. Universities are major bodies for trusted research. But is their offer as valuable as that of a critical friend, working closely with the whole organisation to maximise the learning?
And corporate private sector consultancies are developing their charity arms, perhaps seeing the third sector as equivalent to small businesses, a new market to exploit. But how much experience of our unique sector can they offer?
Does it matter?
Well – it does to me – obviously! It’s what I do, and I know I make a real difference to the organisations which I support.
But does it matter in terms of the end product? Are we better consultants for knowing our fields, inside and out, from myriad perspectives? Does it contribute more to the global ‘good’ to employ someone who is also engaged in useful local activity, rather than someone whose fee adds to the wealth of corporate business owners? Does our specialist commitment, knowledge and experience add tangible value? Or can corporate bodies (whether business or education) offer the same or better?
At the MDN Conference on 2nd May, we will be exploring the meaning of working for the ‘good’, the parallels between our sector and the sector we support, and how to make sure we continue to make an important difference.
Watch this space!
Karen Morton, Consultant, The Capability Company