The UK nonprofit field of community and voluntary organisations is pretty confusing even to those involved, so it would seem sensible to have second-level organisations operating across a city or district to provide shared services, advice to groups, a voice towards public bodies, funders and so on. These Councils for Voluntary Service would also seem to be a good place to locate local technical support, and online networking hubs.
Unfortunately, it isn't working out that way, at least in London. The recent Building Blocks report from a major funder, the City Parochial Foundation, concludes:
Many second-tier organisations (STOs), including councils for voluntary service (CVSs) face difficult issues of quality, credibility, conflict of interest and overwork, and a number of CVSs seem to have lost their sense of purpose and focus.
It is likely to be increasingly difficult for them to raise funds from local authorities, primary care trusts and other statutory funders, given the pressure on those bodies to show that money is achieving improvements in public services, say authors Alison Harker and Steven Burkeman.
The role perhaps most important for CVSs - that of facilitating the voice of voluntary groups - is the one most difficult to fund.
There are many STOs but who they benefit, how they do it and when their intervention is appropriate is unclear to those who might seek their help. This encourages haphazard working in the sector. Small groups in particular feel their voices are not heard and it is funders and outside agencies which decide what they 'need'. Frontline groups value one-to-one help, from knowledgeable, experienced, committed, and skilled individuals/bodies which are not in competition with them for funding.
Among their recommendations, the authors state that over time, funding should increasingly be directed to frontline groups. They will then be in a stronger position to purchase the help they need, from whichever source can best provide it.
The report strikes a chord with me, because of the likely changes in information and support needs in a more networked environment. As I wrote in Why bother with "membership" in future:
It used to be that you joined associations because it was a way of meeting like-minded people and getting help, facilities, information and other things difficult or costly to organise for yourself. These days it is much easier to find people and resources online, and to mix and match these assets into project teams, communities of practice, and informal networks.
I was referring to individual membership, rather than group membership of second-tier bodies, but the same pressures will apply. If funders start to shift resources to the front line - as the report recommends - then CVSs will need to be doubly smart in convincing their members that they have a crucial role ... and getting them to pay for it.
Maggie Baxter, Chair of City Parochial Foundation said: “The report identifies a number of issues and provides a ‘warts and all’ view of the sector. The authors have provided a range of constructive recommendations which provide a programme for action – not just by the STOs themselves but by funders, third-tier organisations, the Charity Commission and Capacitybuilders. We do not expect everyone to agree with all of the findings and recommendations, but we do hope it will start a debate and lead to significant improvements in how infrastructure support is provided and funded.”
There's nowhere on the City Parochial site, that I can see, to discuss these issues, but there will be a conference on March 1. The report can be downloaded from this page on the Foundation's site, together with conference details.