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Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, talks about the value of small charities, and how even the failure of one at this time might have unforeseen consequences.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has calculated that the voluntary sector may lose £4 billion of funding during the current COVID-19 crisis. Social media campaigns with the hashtags #EveryDayCounts and #NeverMoreNeeded are highlighting the real cost if this funding gap is not addressed, including the potential loss of many small voluntary organisations that operate with limited funding and few if any reserves. The value of such small locally-based organisations was the focus of a 2018 research report for the Lloyds Bank Foundation by a team from Sheffield Hallam University, the Institute for Voluntary Action Research and ourselves at the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership. You can read the report here. There is useful data compiled by Sheffield Hallam colleagues and concepts that may help those of you in the sector to express the value of your own organisation.

As a qualitative researcher, it is the stories – organisational and individual, that remain in my mind. As a small player in the Value of Small research team, I visited a food bank – an essential service even then and even more so in these difficult times. The food bank employed a part-time manager and an administrator but depended on its 92 volunteers. I visited on a Monday morning, and the administrator and volunteers were busy unpacking donations, sorting, and packing food parcels. They explained that last week the shelves were empty, but fortunately, it was harvest time, so local schools, community groups, and churches had collected food as part of their harvest celebrations.  The manager had been speaking at harvest events (additional hours to her core employment).  As donations were sorted, the shelves filled up, ready for the expected rise in demand due to pre-Christmas changes in the benefit system.

I pieced together the story of the foodbank’s development through that visit and those I made to other local projects. A key theme of that story was the interdependency of numerous small organisations and their collaboration to make a difference in their locality. A key indication of this interdependence was that the research team had (without intention) interviewed five of the foodbank’s eleven trustees, the founding manager, and a second previous manager in the course of visits to other projects. The foodbank was a product of a tight relational network of individuals and organisations committed to people in that place. Making the foodbank happen involved key actors from multiple other local organisations, including faith and advice charities, and the local council. The density of the network in this place was making things happen in spite of limited resources. Leadership in this context was boundary-crossing and collaborative.

In the challenging times we now face, it is such dense relational networks of individuals and local organisations that hold the potential for concerted place-based action. It is also a potential source of vulnerability as it suggests that any failure of individual small locally-based organisations has the potential to cause a domino effect as the network becomes unravelled. The failure of one small charity in a community may seem like a relatively small consequence of the current crisis, but if the relational networks of local voluntary action unravel the consequences for our shared future may be of greater consequence at the very time when the need for local social action is as great as it has ever been. In this uncertain future, boundary-crossing, collaborative forms of leadership will be even more important at the local level. Follow the links on the CVSL website to find webinar recordings and research updates, and look out for further resources exploring this topic as we move forward through and beyond the current crisis.

24th April 2020

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