Into A New Era: VCSE Strategy lunchtime briefing report
On 11 September 2019, Voscur held a lunchtime briefing on Into a New Era the VCSE sector’s 10-year strategy and vision.
The session aimed to provide an overview of the document, to generate discussion on the contents and to gain feedback and suggestions. This would be used to co-design future improvements in the strategy.
During a workshop, the attendees broke into small discussion groups and each was allocated a theme from the strategy to focus on.
Below, we have provided an overview of the feedback from the room given on each theme.
Theme: Financial Independence
The group asked what we mean by financial independence and who we want to be financially independent from. They also asked what will come from the sector achieving it.
The group pointed out that as organisations are always going to be financially beholden to some sort of outside interest that they need to consider how they can still focus on their purpose. Providing training courses as a service was pointed to as an example of how VCSE organisations can generate business while also contributing to social value.
They said that funding work through commercial activity does not necessarily suit everyone and that it would be useful to better-understand the other options available.
Dealing with competition was seen as one of the key challenges for those organisations where commercial activity is suitable. This was especially the case when it came to using community assets to support sustainability and social enterprise – attendees said that there needs to be recognition of the resource required to generate income. One attendee explained that they spend a lot of time focusing on hiring their premises and that this takes focus away from delivering on their mission. This highlights the contrast between service provision and running a business.
The group felt that it would be useful if Voscur could facilitate a forum for discussing VCSE finance issues – similar to the VCSE fundraisers group on Facebook.
They also said that those organisations working with funders need to focus on engaging with them and focus on their long-term aims rather than just pursuing the next grant.
Financial independence is defined in the strategy as “…reduced reliance on local authority or public funding…”. It also refers to it enabling growth and sustainability in a way that still supports the organisation’s purpose.
Of course, we don’t advocate putting commercial interests over an organisation’s purpose. Rethinking our approach is therefore a key part of the strategy under this theme and organisations that are struggling to strike a balance between the two should consider whether their current approach is best for them.
In terms of the options available to organisations, the strategy suggests social investment, trading or paid-for services as just a few alternatives to local authority or public funding. Voscur is supporting the sector to build business plans around community assets via the City Funds and making social investment accessible to a wider range of organisations. For example, Voscur is working with local partners to provide learning, resources and training based on the experience of organisations that have already increased their financial independence and resilience using asset-based services. This should help other local groups find what works for them. and Mayor’s Asset Group, and our work with Bristol and Bath Regional Capital on
This group was generally comfortable with the strategy’s approach.
There are still many issues around bid candy, with small VCSE organisations being exploited. Their work needs to be valued by commissioners and contractors – they should not be expected to “live off bread crumbs”.
The group said that there were issues with small organisations working with lead contractors. Alternative ways of working in these relationships need to be identified in order to provide mutual support and make them fair for all partners.
Bristol In Partnership is the strategy’s sister document and sets out principles that support and underpin the Bristol VCSE sector’s work together and with others.
This can be used to help guide how we view and behave in partnerships and when collaborating to ensure that relationships flourish and ensure a more equitable result for all parties.
We also provide a wealth of free collaboration resources .
Theme: Resilience and adaptability
The group felt that governance issues are a major threat to resilience. A lot of work needs to be done around developing these skills in small organisations, specifically regarding:
- Engaging service users
- Business models
- Risk management
Voscur provides training and events which cover a range of governance issues. The information gathered from this session has been passed on to the team to inform the design of future training courses.
Work is already underway for engaging the private sector; in particular City Funds has been formed to help the private sector make a real difference by channelling funding towards addressing major issues affecting Bristol. Voscur is on the City Funds board and plays a key role in the initiative.
Theme: Distributed leadership
The group stated that digital channels for reporting on local decisions and making them aware of opportunities to input into them are good and improve accountability and transparency.
They agreed with the strategy, saying that a greater balance in the demographic of leaders in the sector should be encouraged. Similarly, there was agreement that more needs to be done to encourage those working at a grassroots level and young people to have a voice in decision making. A balanced mix of small and large groups also needs to be encouraged. Lived experience was also identified as a key leadership attribute.
This will involve a more proactive approach – leadership can only come from within the sector.
Other points discussed included:
- Selection processes and the accountability of those put forward for leadership needs to be considered.
- Creative ways of listening need to be developed in order to ensure a diverse range of voices are heard from across the city.
- The group also suggested linking into existing networks, rather than completely re-inventing the wheel.
- The sector could be organised into strategic decision-making groups in order to focus on specific themes.
The leadership discussion also threw up a similar challenge as the financial independence group; there is a barrier regarding resourcing – providing leadership takes time and time is money. Is it right to expect people and organisations to contribute to policy and strategy for free?
Finally, leadership needs to be sustainable and succession planning needs to be a key part of any organisation. One suggestion was that each leader could mentor at least two younger people to ensure that their skills and experience are not lost when they retire or leave.
Voscur facilitates the Sector Leaders Network, a group of volunteers that ensure that the VCSE sector is involved in strategic and operational decision making on a broad range of issues. They do this by getting involved in key strategic partnerships, boards and forums, working with representatives across a range of sectors whilst advocating on sector issues and contributing from a sector perspective.
It forms a cornerstone of our approach to distributed leadership and seeks to encourage those from grassroots organisations to have a voice. We intend to keep selection processes minimal to ensure that it is inclusive as possible. The group is also seeking to leverage existing networks for its work and to organise itself around themes; the One City Plan will be used as a template for this.
We run a number of digital channels in which we make the sector aware of consultations etc.; in particular, we are starting a LinkedIn group for the Sector Leader Network.
As a final point, we’d like to pose a question back to the sector – if Voscur were to get funding for its Sector Leader Network and was able to pay its members then how should that be distributed and managed? Maybe you think a volunteer approach is better? Either way, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this in order to help us better understand how we can ensure that the group is successful in its work.