Large charities should not compete against local charities, by Polly Neate

In the first of a series of pieces to be included in our publication Insights for a Better Way, Polly Neate gives her insights on the Better Way proposition: local is better than national.

Polly Neate

Polly Neate

In my role at Shelter, and previously at Women’s Aid, I’ve had cause to reflect on the Better Way principle ‘local is better than national’. It asks organisations to swim against the tide of competitive tendering. It’s easy, as a national organisation, to float downstream on that tide, waving goodbye to the small, local organisations left behind. The choices large organisations make in response to local competitive tenders are easy to complicate. But the simplicity of doing the right thing cuts through the complexities we create – that’s why it’s so challenging. At Women’s Aid I heard versions of the story that follows many, many times. That’s what convinced me that we need to step up to the challenge as a sector – and we need to do it soon.

This story begins in the 1970s, when feminism was a march into the future. How many activists of that time would have dreamed the movement would now, in some ways, look back on those days with nostalgia? You couldn’t switch on the telly without seeing a woman the butt of the joke. James Bond casually slapped Moneypenny’s bottom and the only eyebrow raised was his own. Violence against women was routinely condoned or disbelieved, and rape in marriage was not a crime.

‘Women's refuges had to be campaigners as much as helpers, and were often run by survivors’

In this climate, the first women’s refuges were born. Often founded by women who had survived abuse themselves, because only they could see domestic abuse amid the routine belittling and dismissal of women’s concerns. They had to be campaigners as much as helpers. They begged or squatted buildings, cobbled together meagre funds from here and there, gathered secondhand furniture and clothes for women and children who fled abuse with nothing. They had to convince all those with power in the local area that a refuge was even needed, that it relied on secrecy, that abusive men would stop at nothing to seek and destroy both their own partner and, often, anyone who stood in the way.

Over the decades, thousands of women’s lives were saved. And running a refuge still involved constant fundraising. Then, a more secure funding stream was born.  Supporting People, covering all  supported housing, offered secure  grant income from the local council.  It wasn’t perfect, but after years  of hand-to-mouth existence, it was  a relief. It also provided a way  of establishing new refuges, and  a place at the table among local  decision-makers at last. Finally, domestic abuse and the  nature of its impact on women  began to be understood. Refuges reached out to prevent future  violence, speaking in schools and  workplaces, training other agencies,  and perhaps most importantly  inspiring women who had fled abuse  to volunteer and then move into  paid work, with many themselves  becoming refuge managers. 

Roll forward to 2010: Supporting People was ended, at the same time  as dramatic year-on-year reductions  to local government funding, and the lifting of virtually all diktats on how councils should spend their money.

For many councils, the logical next step was to extend the market principles that had already taken   hold in adult social care. The refuge became just one lot in a large tender. Frequently, the women   founders were even barred from competing by size rules. In other cases, they competed and lost –  usually on price. Between 2010  and 2015, one in six independent refuges were lost. The winners were   often larger charities or housing associations, who competed on price with bland assurances that  ‘service delivery’ could continue.  ‘Is the charity sector about service delivery at the most competitive price? Or is it something more?’    

‘Is the charity sector about service delivery at the most competitive price? Or is it something more?’

And there’s the question at the heart of this principle. Is the charity sector about service delivery at the most   competitive price? Or is it something more?     

Large organisations who have won refuge contracts, putting those feminist activists out of business in   the process, probably didn’t see the future of the charity sector as a factor in their decision to bid, or indeed as their responsibility. But they should. Quite apart from the question of   whether the new ‘provider’ is as   good as the old (which of course depends what you measure), there’s another question which all of civil society must consider: what sort of sector do we want to be part of, and   whose responsibility is it to create it?   We had better be happy with the demise of small, local, activist-led organisations, because that’s where we are headed.    

The twin axioms of the current government – austerity and localism   – mean that national lobbying will not achieve protection for local, independent organisations. It can produce a short-term injection of   funds – in fact, that’s a massive   success in this day and age – but it won’t level the playing field.

‘It’s up to the large organisations themselves to rewrite this story.’

So it’s up to the large organisations themselves to rewrite this story: to choose not to compete. To choose not to win, even though they can.

At Shelter my perspective has shifted but the picture is still the same. Women fleeing domestic abuse are  left with no one who will go that extra mile, who has been through it herself, who has devoted her life to the long and dangerous path to recovery from domestic abuse. There might be a bed available, funded through a generic supported housing contract. And a provider, and a commissioner, who don’t even understand what has been lost.

Polly Neate became Shelter’s CEO in August 2017, having been the high profile CEO of Women’s Aid and, before that, leading all external activities, strategy   development and organisational change as   Executive Director at Action for Children. She has always worked for social justice, previously as an award-winning journalist.