The challenge of challenging times Every blog or ‘view from the CEO’ that I’ve read over recent months, perhaps even years, talks of ‘challenging times’. And these are challenging times for the sector, even more so perhaps the infrastructure* segment of the sector , but they’ve been thus for years so isn’t it about time we moved on from that and got to grips with the challenge? (*CVSs, community development organisations, campaigning and umbrella bodies etc) I don’t mean to be antagonistic or confrontational in that comment – but it is true – we’ve been talking about changing funding regimes, doing more with less, hard times for charities for endless years now. We have to be able to adapt to such changes rather than wishing on the good times coming back – because they won’t – no, really, they won’t! Rather than mourning the loss of local infrastructure providers, being replaced by a mish-mash of ‘new’ models, with no apparent strategy, infrastructure providers should be looking at how we can continue to deliver without public sector investment. It is liberating to no longer receive funding from the local authority – I would hope that it will have the additional advantage of creating a more equal working relationship with those bodies such as that we enjoy with those that don’t fund us, although I probably doubt that in practice. We already work well with local authority officers, but in terms of real strategic relationships, I don’t see much of a desire for that from their perspective. The door is always open for those conversations, but for some of those local authorities we’re apparently not seen as important enough. Maybe that doesn’t matter? So, back to the ‘getting over it and moving on’ question – it is a very different mind-set for a chief officer and senior management team to move away from the relative safety of grant funding into an earned income position, and not all organisations are able to do it. It would be an absolute impossibility for every single charity to become financially self-sustaining. It would be a sheer impossibility for every small charity to secure an independent income either from selling their services, their merchandise or having another trading vehicle. So, we, as infrastructure providers, must fully accept that of what scarce public or trust funding is around, a high proportion should be directed toward the front line – to those organisations and services that are of high proven value / impact but will never be able to move to financial independence. Those that can develop in that way should be supported to do so, not just in terms of practical support but also in terms of policy and regulatory measures, and those that can’t should expect to be able to receive some level of subsidy. Yes, there should be a strategic understanding of infrastructure needs to develop a thriving not for profit sector, but we infrastructure providers need to move towards understanding the real financial value of what we do, and enabling those that can pay to pay thereby enabling us to subsidise provision for those who can’t pay. It is a shame that the public sector has, in my opinion, failed to think very strategically about their local infrastructure needs, or considered contracting in different ways, such as block purchasing provision or attaching a requirement to purchase infrastructure provision (perhaps by way of a voucher scheme) to locally funded frontline delivery organisations. This isn’t the place (or post) to talk about different models, but there are some ideas which haven’t been fully explored and which should be – perhaps a future post? But I do know that not-for-profits like mine have a greater ability to generate income than others and we should apply any surpluses to continuing to do our good work. So I suppose what I was trying to say is that yes, we are living in challenging times but we have been for years and it really is about time we got over it and moved on, in my opinion. It is for the more sustainable charities and not-for-profits to display a bit of charitable feeling to those causes which are so important but cannot generate their own income and be gracious if they mop up all the public funding there is out there. If we as infrastructure providers say that our role is to help the sector to become more independent and resilient, then we should be modelling that behaviour ourselves. It may sound like survival of the fittest, or it may sound like pragmatism. I know I am fortunate to be in a position where we have sizable income stream that would sustain core operations, but in order for us to grow that so that the core is ALL of the community development and infrastructure work we deliver, I / we have a big task ahead of us and one single income generation strategy will not be the answer. We have to be agile, ready to seize opportunities, skilful at assessing risk and brave enough to take the plunge.