It’s an old question: “have you ever wondered what it would be like if….?” (Bit of a cliché in fact, but go with me, it’s the end of a long difficult year...)
On the day I’m writing this, we’re asking that question about the work of local charities, community groups, faith groups, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Have you ever wondered what it would be like if they just weren’t there?
The reason we’re asking this today is not just to highlight the amazing work which local organisations have been doing and continue to do in response to Covid19, community building, tackling inequalities and all the things we have been working on for so many years. One of Manchester’s greatest assets is its diverse and vibrant eco-system of over 3000 voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises. They work in arts, sport, mental health, environment, welfare benefits, homelessness, refugees, youth services, domestic abuse, learning and almost every other area that supports the health and wellbeing of the people of Manchester. They provide services, give advice, advocate for the people they help and assist them in advocating for themselves, and work with volunteers. They work with every disadvantaged community in Manchester. We believe that much of this is at risk of disappearing.
Before we go any further, none of this is about simply wanting to continue to exist as organisations. You will hopefully have seen something of the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign, which we’re part of as a national movement. What we really want is not to be needed at all. We want a thriving, inclusive economy which supports livelihoods while not breaking the limits of what our planet can cope with. We want great public services which work with local communities to ensure there is a social safety net.
The trouble is that’s not the way things are heading at the moment. With the combined impacts of Covid19, the impact it has had on livelihoods, communities and the economy, the impacts of whatever is about to happen with Brexit, years of reduced investment in local public services and the long standing structural inequalities which Covid19 has revealed and preyed upon (but did not actually cause) …there are tough times ahead.
And the challenge for all those organisations striving to make a difference is that we may be facing another “perfect storm” unless there is a collective decision to do something about it. That’s the risk we want to highlight through today’s day of action.
The Covid-19 crisis has impacted on the VCSE sector just has it has on every other sector. Recent national statistics show that the financial position of 40% of VCSE organisations deteriorated in the previous month and about 10% of organisations feared that they would no longer be operating in a year’s time (Covid-19 Voluntary Sector Impact Barometer - Oct 2020). Again, it’s not about their need to exist, it’s about the fact that they are still needed.
Much of the funding during the Covid19 crisis has been short-term funding and organisations do not know yet how or whether they will be able to fund their work in the future. Organisations have faced increased expenses during the crisis in making adaptations and in continuing to run both face to face and digital services. Many are already facing surges in requests for their help and this is only likely to increase as the epidemic continues. Organisations that rely on rent or fees for services have been particularly badly hurt and may close, leading to the loss of critical services and community facilities in some communities of Manchester. That might seem like a really hard fact about money but the impact goes much deeper. In some communities in our city, those facilities are an asset owned by the local community which it has taken years, maybe even decades to build up. If it’s lost, the whole community becomes the poorer for it. That would worse existing inequalities: we know that community organisations led by Black, Asian and other minority groups have historically had less investment and resources (something we are constantly trying to correct!). If those organisations are lost, the benefit of that investment is lost almost overnight and it is harder than ever to rebuild just when it is needed.
One of the things I have also been saying a lot recently is that we need to think about reserves – not just in the financial sense but also our personal, human reserves. The VCSE sector also has a workforce – some paid, some voluntary. We have to think about the risks to them of continuing to work flat out with limited and decreasing resources.
It’s also very easy for this to become a discussion about who should give us their money. That’s not the real issue we want to highlight. This is a risk to all our systems and what used to be known as the “social contract”. If Local Authorities aren’t properly resourced, they can’t provide services to everyone who needs and is entitled to them. Pressure on Local Authority and NHS budgets may mean they need to cut the funds they give to VCSE organisations but it goes much deeper: public bodies need the extra lifting power of VCSE organisations to help prevent demand (as we have seen during Covid19), but if our public services aren’t properly resourced they have to do things like manage their own cuts and tighten criteria…which means the demand for support ends up falling to the VCSE sector…and so we end up with a vicious circle in which a lack of investment in our ecosystem of support across the sectors means inequalities increase and we see rises in things like homelessness, destitution and poverty. When we talk about “Manchester cuts” we’re talking about the impact on all sectors, on all communities.
There is hope. In Manchester, the Council, the VCSE sector and other funding organisations are working together in a partnership to think about how we can join forces to tackle this. Even things like improving the ways we share information about funding can help. There are good indications that national funding bodies are working on new funding programmes which will help our organisations do what is needed over the coming years (including funding targeted at those organisations in Black, Asian and other minority communities).
But our call to action today is to spend a little time understanding what may be about to happen and to think about what you can do – in whatever way you can - to help change it.
VCSE organisations across Manchester will be sharing their stories on social media of what they have done today....so you'll be able to see just what would not happen if they weren't there. You can see those stories and join the conversations on social media using the hashtags #NeverMoreNeeded and #ManchesterCuts
And you can read more about the impact of the VCSE sector in Manchester in a special new section on our website: https://manchestercommunitycentral.org/manchester-voluntary-sector-impact