There has been another re-launch of the Big Society recently. This gathered some criticisms from media commentators who saw the need to re-launch it as an indication that the principle of Big Society – communities and individuals being more active for their own benefit – is a failure. I certainly wouldn’t be one to claim that the flagship initiative has been a runaway success, but I do believe that the idea behind it is a good one. Yes the timing is difficult (people facing the loss of their job may feel less inclined to give cash or time to good deeds) yes the financial situation facing the nation is a challenge (many funding providers are pulling back from charities and other local providers), but to me the principle is one that should be celebrated and not seen with derision and mistrust – all too often the British way.
As well as the issues highlighted above, which will take some years to resolve, there are other barriers to the government’s proposals. Despite Eric Pickle’s mantra of ‘localism, localism, localism’, when you get down into small towns and communities there are real problems for well meaning, very capable charities and community groups when they are trying to deliver local services.
The first one is a lack of understanding. Local government, police, central government all fail to understand the culture and make up of local charities; and local charities all too often fail to understand the expectations and workings of government. Charities are run by a small handful of volunteers, occasionally with some paid support, and depend on grants, funding bids and their own fundraising to survive. They are often unable to understand the obsession with forms, policies, etc. from funding providers, and all too often totally misunderstand how any bid they submit will be assessed by the funding body. This brings me onto the second barrier.
I saw a funding application process recently from a local funding body that required not just a 12 page form to be completed (fairly standard, but as anyone who has filled in job applications knows the process of form filling is a long and painful process – and made more difficult when most of your volunteers are out there doing community work), but also a raft of other documents. These ranged from policies (no environmental impact policy? No funding!) through financial information, letters of support, business plans, and included documents such as copies of leaseholds that can actually cost an administration fee from the charity’s solicitors to get copied. In total there were something like 20 attachments to the bid form. Getting (and in some cases writing) these takes valuable time away from local communities, and in the case of the freehold document takes real cash. All for a bid of well under £10,000, with no guarantee of success.
Yes there is a need for some oversight from a funder that their money is being spent appropriately. But next time you are involved in putting together a bidding process think if you really need copies of all the policies? Do you actually need proof of freeholds, or would a signed statement from the charity trustee do? When you are asking all those questions on your 12 page form, consider the impact that gathering that information has on many local groups, most of whom will be unsuccessful. As an example of how to do it a (private sector) funding round I saw recently has a 1 page form, with no other documents required, apart from proof of the bank account. Local government no longer has the luxury of lots of staff to read all this documentary evidence, local charities have never had the capacity to fill it in without impacting on their service provision. We need to trim away the mould of bureaucracy that has crept into funding applications and keep them simple, short and relevant.
Let me know of your examples (good and bad) of forms and their impact on communities.