I wonder sometimes about how to describe or define CaVCA - whilst we continue to deliver our core work, managing buildings, delivering community development support, building the capacity of local communities do we fit neatly into a sector segment? We were previously an infrastructure organisation, or a Local Support and Development Organisation. I don’t even know from where this description or title came. We were traditionally known as CVSs or Councils for Voluntary Service and our remit was to build the capacity of the local sector to deliver their charitable work.

As the world of the not-for-profit has changed, as the voluntary sector has developed and grown, as the professional requirements and commercial awareness of the sector has metamorphosed into something which, in some cases, barely resembles the old stereotypical community based charity, then the demands on infrastructure should too have developed and grown in order to best meet sector needs.

There have been developments, and the requirements that NAVCA have determined indicate an organisation’s quality in the delivery of ‘infrastructure’ provision have also developed, become more challenging. This is what a modern CVS should do. BUT. And its a big but. As it tends to be the local authority that funds the majority of infrastructure provision, they are interfering in how it should be delivered. This may be in the interests of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, consistency or credibility, but it is changing the infrastructure landscape in a piecemeal fashion. There have been government sponsored reports into what local infrastructure provision should look like, there have been consultations, and examinations of what is delivered and what could be delivered. And what emerges in the translation of this down to a local level is a dilution of what the research tells us, into a colourless, tasteless, generic ‘offer’ that fails to recognise the importance of interpersonal relationships, local tweaking of provision to meet local idiosyncrasies, ease of access to a local organisation and so on. It also, rather arrogantly, enables local public servants and local politicians to indirectly or directly intervene in the operation of independent local charities – because that is what we are. Our view on what works and what doesn’t work in the provision of local capacity building support, volunteering assistance and troubleshooting is no longer of any strategic importance once the contract has been reallocated. We cannot just stop being infrastructure organisations if that is what we are set up to be – and no matter who delivers the contract, whilst we still exist and have a function, we are an alternative provider of infrastructure support.

Now anyone who knows me, knows me well, will have wondered at me taking on the role of CEO of a Council for Voluntary Service – I’ve been known to question the need for infrastructure support and, having generally worked within community development organisations, I’ve thought we do the same thing, though CVSs do it without the community development aspect! Yet they get the money for it. Obviously this view rather changed when I joined the infrastructure sector, but I continued to recognise that CVSs are not the only players in the capacity building of local communities.

So, when is an infrastructure organisation not an infrastructure organisation? When it’s CaVCA?

The infrastructure contract for capacity building support and support for volunteering for the voluntary and community sector in North Yorkshire is now provided by Community First Yorkshire and it provides a comprehensive approach based on the findings of a survey of infrastructure provision carried out by North Yorkshire County Council. It provides a County-wide provision without locality bases but which provides absolute confidence in the consistency of provision. It provides diagnostic support and advice and assistance to groups, including, presumably, funding advice. It provides support for volunteering via a county-wide platform – there does not appear to be any local brokerage arrangements. It provides a representative function for the sector, seeking to apply sector-influence over, in the main, North Yorkshire County Council structures. I see little in the way of health structures within the current representation portfolio. It is not my place to criticise the new provision – I have not needed to access it and I have not received any criticism of its provision. More interestingly I have received absolutely no feedback about its provision – not, its better or worse than you, its easier or harder to get hold of than you. Total silence from the sector of which I’m a part. Now its not that I would have expected our organisations to have been chaining themselves to the railings at county hall, calling out the decision makers who awarded the contract elsewhere and thereby dismissed the CVS-movement locally with one foul swoop. I knew that we wouldn’t have local groups fighting for our survival, even those that we’ve helped immensely over the years. There was no doubt that some, like I have in the past, have questioned the scale of investment that North Yorkshire County Council apparently made into infrastructure support. But regardless of this, and regardless of the decision making process that led to the award to Community First Yorkshire, I would expect to hear something about people’s experiences.

So, Community First Yorkshire provides infrastructure for all in North Yorkshire. where does that leave CaVCA? Well, we’re certainly busy. But is what we do the same as that which we did previously or are we running around seeking to reinvent ourselves?

When we first ‘lost’ the infrastructure contract I did think we would need a period of reflection and reinvention. But that focus was rather overshadowed by the launch of Totally Socially, our new way of working, a way of working which would have happened anyway, regardless of the outcome of the infrastructure tender.

Totally Socially was developed through our social enterprise development work as part of Scarborough Enterprise Match and our emerging annual Social Enterprise Events metamorphosed into something entirely different from traditional networking and showcase events into something about blending ways of being and ways of working which blurs the distinctions between social and private enterprise. This concept was intertwined with a rapid community development approach which had been piloted in 2011-12 on the South Coast and a successful bid was made to the Big Lottery Reaching Communities, just at the right time for CaVCA. And this is enhanced, supported, and developed by our extensive asset portfolio, our professional consultancy stream and our newly emerging membership offer. All of our work is delivered in a community development style, building on assets which already exist within our communities, focusing our attention on what is needed and what is achievable.

It isn’t that we’ve pinned all our hopes on this one ‘new’ approach – it is that circumstances collided to the point whereby we reached the perfect point in time to shift our focus to a modern new infrastructure provision. We still build capacity, we still guide on financing initiatives, we still provide high quality community facilities, and we still help communities to troubleshoot. But we are not constrained by the need to work in a particular way with a particular group, or work on a particular issue. We are free to respond to the community and we are free to act as a part of that community, stimulating change ourselves. CaVCA is an infrastructure provider that works in partnership with its communities, we provide what local residents say they need and we deal with issues that local people say are important to them. We are in equal partnership with our communities.

So is this a new form of infrastructure? No, it’s an alternative form certainly, but it is one which development trusts and community development bodies have been delivering for years, equipping people and communities with the skills and resources they need to make the differences needed in their locality. It will complement traditional infrastructure provision funded by the local public sector and delivered centrally from somewhere outside York and it may, at some point in the future, survive that provision. If we want infrastructure provision to develop financial sustainable and viable not-for-private-profit bodies, surely we should expect them to display the same characteristics. We should put our money where are mouth is. CaVCA does that.