A new approach for VCSE infrastructure

John Gillespie and Gemma Cossins, Tower Hamlets Council for Voluntary Service

We think that the infrastructure sector can be more confident about what we can do, and less defensive. In many ways we don’t know how good we are, and don’t always have confidence in our capacities. However this does not mean that we don’t recognise a need to change.

How the VCSE infrastructure sector must change

At THCVS we recognise our need to look outwards more. We can’t rely on people knowing about us, or coming to us. We have to put ourselves in the picture, turn up where front-line organisations are and be pushier in helping people – our experience is that many organisations are a little shy of asking for help, especially given that many in our sector are in a fragile situation, which makes it harder for them to reach out. As an infrastructure sector we need to go towards them. Small groups are often embarrassed about asking for help and we have come across more than one example of a big organisation submitting a very poor bid.

Being strategic

Like many CVSs THCVS is still too reliant on statutory (mostly council) funding. As part of our future development we need to set out a commercial offer, develop a values-based membership, and (as a small CVS with limited capacity) we regard it as important to establish a clear mission that is based on ethical principles that supports us in future decisions about what we do, and where we allocate our limited resources. We need be more strategic and long-term in our thinking. For example a lot of our development work is responsive to demand. Much of this is nice work – we get to meet loads of organisations and help them every time, and we’ll never run out of these clients… but this may not be what’s most important in terms of really helping the people in Tower Hamlets. We need to be a bit more strategic and less demand-led, where we think about how what we do fits into borough priorities based on a clear ethical framework, rather than only responding to people who come to us.

Thinking like commissioners

We need to be demonstrating our value to statutory bodies, rather than taking this for granted. In Tower Hamlets we have a very good working relationship with the CCG. The CCG realises that there is value in the voluntary sector, however from its point of view some of  the smaller organisations appear really messy, so it’s simpler for them to deal with a few. They know they can’t keep picking organisations based on their instincts. They knew there were more organisations out there, so that’s why they knew that they had to engage with us.

We have to present ourselves as the solution to the problem, but that means we have to understand what the problems are so that means we need to think like commissioners. The CCG’s decision to work with us was very relationship based. Our development manager sat alongside the CCG on a panel for an innovation bursary scheme. You have to spend time with commissioners to build relationships, and for them to realise we are sensible people to work with.

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