Sector-Wide Update for Members

Posted on
15 Jun 2021
by
Ivan Cooper | Director of Public Policy, The Wheel

Remarkable work has been done in the sector to redesign and innovate services and supports to people and communities during the crisis.  And all of this was done as the sector itself coped with the biggest existential challenge it has ever experienced that saw a huge fall in income across the sector (hundreds of millions of Euro were lost – partially replaced by many crucial and very welcome key Government schemes noted below).

While a funding crisis remains for many organisations, the pattern is unclear with different impacts on four main categories of organisations:

  1. Innovative fundraising charities have seen their income increase
  2. Traditional face-to-face fundraising charities have seen their income decline
  3. Statutorily funded charities have seen stable or increased funding
  4. Social-enterprise-type organisations that earn-income-through sales have had a mixed experience with some seeing decreased income and some increasing income.

We need to carefully monitor the situation as Government moves to withdraw crisis-supports that many organisations have depended on including the

  • €55m Stability Fund for Charities
  • Employee Wage Subsidy Scheme
  • Special COVID-19 Support Scheme.

There is a general concern about the future impact on income in the sector in late 2021 and into 2022 as all of these schemes and special supports are withdrawn and as the reserves that many organisations have been surviving off deplete.  To benefit from these schemes, organisations had to demonstrate that their overall income had fallen by over 25% – so there are many organisations out there that have not received supports despite seeing up to 24% of their income disappear – and many of these may experience very serious funding difficulties in the 12-months ahead.

We will be working to encourage all funding departments to research the precise situation facing organisations working in their policy-area – and we will be conducting further research with members to stay abreast of this evolving situation.  This will enable us to identify any additional action that may be needed to support organisations through the challenging period ahead.

Many organisations are anticipating management challenges relating to return-to-workplace and hybrid-home/office-working arrangements and industrial relations issues relating to pay and conditions.  Members are reporting that staff have (unsurprisingly) become used to very different expectations during the crisis.  Issues relating to wages/salaries as pent-up pay-demands have been deferred during the crisis are expected to crystallise as a period of anticipated higher inflation flows through.  There is a big question as to how organisations can deal with claims when incomes are fixed or declining for many organisations. An inability to meet such pay claims is expected to further negatively impact already-difficult retention and recruitment in the sector. 

This challenge is often characterised by members as feeling as though staff are being “poached’ if they leave to take up similar roles on higher pay and better terms and conditions with statutory agencies. Additionally, the cost of outfitting staff with appropriate home-working equipment as hybrid home/office work arrangements become the new normal, will pose a challenge to many organisations that may have been operating on a “muddling through” basis so far.  Significant additional and unprovided-for costs are anticipated by many members.

Volunteer Involving Organisations (VIOs) faced particular challenges during the crisis as many volunteer teams had be stood down to comply with the requirements of social distancing and remote working which necessitated the cancellation of events and activities that volunteers normally participate in.   Ironically, as this was happening, more people than ever engaged in informal community volunteering (helping neighbours with essential chores such as shopping and making sure people were not left isolated), so overall volunteering increased during the crisis. There remains a challenge for organisations that benefit from the work of volunteers to re-engage with existing cohorts of volunteers that may have become disengaged over the last 15 months or so.  There is also a great opportunity for VIOs to engage with all the new people who have been volunteering in their communities during the crisis to provide opportunities for these volunteers to take part in new activities.  VIOs may also need additional supports to build their capacity to engage and support/manage new volunteers.   

All of the above said relating to challenges facing the sector, there is evidence of much very positive, collegial and collaborative work between funded voluntary organisations and state agencies like the HSE during the crisis.  Much of this positive experience has been captured in an NESC report just published. There is however a significant concern that there is already a general return to unfortunate (as members often put it) “overly bureaucratic and officious “relationships with funders.  Members report a falling-back from the very positive single-point-decision-making that characterised the improved relationships that prevailed during the crisis, as contract-stipulations were set aside and funders and funded-organisations collaborated with a strong sense of shared purpose.  We need to work hard to make sure that there is not an automatic return to the overly centralised, command-and-control culture – and that the positive experience of more autonomous decision making and collaborative approaches persists instead.

As we move nationally from the immediate COVID-19 crisis to a recovery-from-COVID-19 phase, a range of longstanding challenges that were put to one side during the crisis are once again confronting the sector.  Challenges that remain to be addressed are related to the command -and-control-culture we need to transcend and include:

  • Overly onerous compliance requirements and prescriptive/restrictive funding agreements that stifle the very responsiveness, flexibility, innovation, person-centredness, and community-accountability that characterise the work of community and voluntary organisations
  • Unfunded compliance requirements
  • Absence of funding for core-costs (in addition to the marginal costs of specific services)
  • Lack of multi-annual funding.

We need a new settlement that learns the positive lessons from the COVID-19 experience and strikes a better balance between autonomy and accountability and which will enable people and communities to benefit to the full from the huge societal-value inherent in community-led supports, services and advocacy.

Happily a number of processes are recommencing post crisis that we are optimistic will help address these longstanding challenges.  These include the:

  • Health Dialogue Forum
  • Tusla Commissioning Advisory Group
  • The CV Sector 5-Year Strategy implementation process
  • The Social Enterprise Policy Implementation Group
  • The National Volunteer Strategy Implementation Group.

The Health Dialogue Forum chaired by Peter Cassells brings together all the major representative bodies (including The Wheel) of health and social service providing community and voluntary organisations with the Department of Health, the HSE and HIQA.  The Forum is commencing its work in earnest after studying the positive experience of collaborative working between the sector and the HSE that prevailed during the crisis with a view to addressing many of the longstanding funding, compliance and service-agreement-related challenges noted above.  We will be working hard to centrally involve our 200-plus HSE funded members in this process and we are excited that it will deliver on the promise first identified in the Report of the Independent Review Group  on the role of Voluntary Organisations in Health and Personal Social Services.  We are also hopeful that reforms in how things are done in this space may provide models and be replicated across the system more generally – and we in The Wheel will be working hard to ensure that positive changes in practice flow through to all such relationships between funding agencies/departments and funded-organisations working in partnership. All of the other processes referenced above are also advancing in the COVID-19 recovery context and we will be involving all relevant members through our many topic-specific networks – I would encourage you to join the relevant groups to keep up to date with developments.

While all of this is good, I have word of caution at this point– the sector may be facing a renewed focus on reputation and on the adequacy of governance practice.  As I am sure all readers will be only too aware there have been some very disturbing developments recently in a particular organisation, which have received significant attention in the media and which have caused questions to be asked about how these kinds of developments are possible in the era of charity regulation and mandatory compliance with governance codes. 

It is not my purpose here to elaborate on this issue but these developments do raise questions.  We need the highest governance standards – we have a charity regulator and a governance code that is mandatory. What else do we need to do to ensure the system works? Good governance is essential and costs money – are we supporting voluntary boards enough?  What more can we do?  We need to dedicate funds to organisations to assist them in meeting the highest governance standards we all expect and desire for others and for ourselves – and we will be redoubling our advocacy efforts in this regard.

Finally, we in The Wheel believe that one part of what is needed to counteract the sometimes negative coverage of the sector is a major national campaign to raise awareness of the impact of the work of Ireland’s thousands of community and voluntary organisations – most activity in the sector goes unreported and the scale and extent and massive positive impact of the work of the sector is simply not known to the public and to policymakers. We believe a campaign to raise awareness of the work of the sector is what’s needed, and as I am sure many of you are aware, such a campaign is currently being shaped by as steering group comprised of Boardmatch, Charities Institute Ireland, Disability Federation of Ireland, Dochas, The Wheel and Volunteer Ireland.  I would very much like to encourage you to get involved with the campaign which you will be hearing a lot more about from The Wheel’s Campaign Manager, Sarah Monaghan, in the coming months.

Conclusions

So, in conclusion, yes, concerns are legion in the sector:

What will future government budgets and policies be towards the sector?

Will we see a return to austerity to recover costs, despite all the promises and the advice of the IMF and the monetary expansion of the ECB? We need to watch out for even the slightest signs of this – and act as necessary.

Will there be pressures on organisations to merge when it may not improve outcomes for people and communities concerned?

Will public service reform processes increase at pace and what is the vision for retaining the core societal value that community and voluntary organisations bring to their work, their:

  • Flexibility
  • Responsiveness
  • Accountability
  • Innovation
  • Person-centredness.

We need more of these characteristics in our public services generally, not less.

Public Policy should be aiming to ensure that. And that is what we are working to ensure.

We will be working to ensure these and all the issues I have noted in this article are addressed in our forthcoming Budget 2022Campaign – and we will be inviting, indeed asking you, to take part in this key campaign for the sector in the Autumn.

We look forward to working with you and all of our members on these issues -  and please email me directly at ivan@wheel.ie if you have any observations relating to this piece.

Ivan