Third Sector Mikado

Did you ever play Mikado when you were young?  You chuck lots of sticks up in the air and just see where they land, and that of course can be anywhere.

Something very similar happens when a local authority adopts a “let’s just throw a funding programme open to the Third Sector to do what whatever they can with” approach, with no requirements set out for preferred bidding models across geographic areas covered by a fund and no guidance on preferred structures, or priorities. Understandably, adopting such a funding approach cannot fail to leave organisations and groups in the Sector utterly confused and unsure about which ‘bid mast’ to pin their colours to.

The sector as a whole asks itself various questions:

  • Which bid is most likely to succeed and be the most financially beneficial for my organisation or group so we can keep going?
  • Which choice of partnership to join will result in the greatest tensions locally (and avoiding these if possible) reducing further the likelihood of us being able to work effectively together in an environment of openness and trust in the future?
  • Which choice of partnership to join will cause the greatest alienation and organisational risk to the smaller community groups already struggling fiercely to survive in a difficult funding climate in order to continue helping those most in need?
  • Which choice of partnership to join will deliver consistency for communities and maximise opportunities for equal access to services to help them achieve their potential, rather than create a ‘luck of the draw’ approach depending on where people live?
  • So many questions….and of course the most important one of all ….which bid is the best one for our collective communities now and in the future?

This last fundamental question is probably the one given the least consideration as, understandably, the sector is forced to enter yet another chapter in their fight for survival – small perhaps but bloody, with a funding regime that sets groups and organisations against each other in competition, deepening mistrust and parochialism.

Decisions on how to come together end up being made based on very limited, if any, information about other bid aspirations and are often based on who people feel comfortable working with. The likely result? A fragmented, inconsistent picture of support that doesn’t provide the best for communities with tax payer’s money.

Community values are stretched to the limit as the principles of successful long term community development that a local authority should be custodians of, for example effective use of scarce resources, trust, openness, strong equitable partnerships, and social justice or ‘fairness’ for all communities are placed niftily at the ‘collective foot’ of the Third Sector.

“Well” a local authority might say “we gave you the freedom to demonstrate how you would do it properly and work together. If you can’t get it right, that’s not our responsibility”. Hmm……with no structure, no rules of engagement, imagine if the tables were turned on a local authority with all departments scrabbling about internally for a share of a grant pot?

As you might imagine such an approach is likely to have a harmful impact on the Sector.

In reality a very small percentage of the enormous amount of effort, time, expense, heart ache and hard work expended by the Third Sector as a whole will be transformed into successful bids to a funding programme, and is likely to leave a legacy of divisions and further fragmentation.

Just a thought, but perhaps if funding policy and strategy for delivering Third Sector support to communities were to be co-produced equally with the Third Sector, designing some useful rules for engagement that supported the development of meaningful structures and partnerships from the outset and set within, or across, geographic boundaries, the time that is spent working out how best to respond to such an open book and who to partner with could be better spent working on the all-important bid content, and avoid the negative fall-out from such a process.

There is a different and a better way to do business with the Third Sector, through co-production, but Public Sector needs to understand what this technique entails and embrace it to avoid a continuation of the ‘same old’ agonies that sadly don’t achieve the best outcomes for communities most in need of support and certainly don’t support survival of the best of the Third Sector.

Anyone up for change?

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