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Cathy Pharoah: Why charities must get behind local collaboration

by Cathy Pharoah, Visiting Professor, Charity Funding, The Business School, City, University of London and co-Director of CGAP.

Local action has always been at the heart of the charity sector, but one of the most important re-discoveries of the pandemic experience is the huge importance of our local areas. People have come to know and depend on their local areas in a new way, whether supporting neighbours, pacing local streets or parks, seeking out local shops, deliveries or services, clapping for local hospitals or engaging in local voluntary initiatives.

It was notable that well before the pandemic, philanthropic and public funders were putting place-based initiatives at the heart of their social change strategies. The Government’s forthcoming White Paper on its levelling up agenda, and our renewed awareness of the depth of local inequalities  have thrown a fresh focus on the importance of locality. This context creates a powerful platform for local charities to raise awareness of their importance to local health, welfare, culture, leisure and economic growth, and build their case for support. It also provides the rationale for why they should have a key place at the table in local consultation exercises, partnerships and joint initiatives.

Some areas, like the North East, have collected rich data and information on their local voluntary sector. Many local charities, however, get on with their work quietly in the background. Local people don’t know they are there, or have little idea of what their local charities collectively contribute. One of the great values of local sector collaboration is that charities can pool their information resources, collect data and make their presence felt.

Strong local collaboration is needed to identify the assets which a local area has, and build the evidence case for attracting new investment into an area, such as local endowments and other pooled funding pots. There are going to be new opportunities for local funding particularly for local development projects which are led by communities working within local partnerships. The levelling up funds will provide some opportunities. Local Trust’s Community Wealth Fund Alliance is an important campaign to raise funding specifically for promising locally-led programmes. There are 47 local Community Foundations in the UK, which have shown the way in building local endowments, providing a focus for local donors, and a forum for charities, businesses and government to meet and work together. Their pivotal local position has seen them attract many funds from donors of all kinds for their areas, and they distribute around £1billion in grants, including, for example, the Government’s emergency COVID funding.

Community asset transfer is another policy which is attracting a lot of support from local government and other funders, who are increasingly keen to encourage community ownership of assets as a focus for local collaborations to build more cohesive and financially sustainable communities. Bristol council, for example, is one of the leaders in the field and has set out a policy aimed at local non-profits which can demonstrate their value to wide and diverse range of local people.

Local businesses have always supported local charities, but the business sector too is getting involved in more strategic partnership approaches to stronger local communities. Business in the Community (BitC) is involved in a number of practical local pilot projects to find out how cross-sector collaborative working can be facilitated, and the most effective ways in which business can contribute.

An Aviva project in Norwich, for example, aims to tackle local loneliness and social isolation through a collaborative approach.

As charities seek to diversify their funding sources, there is enormous benefit in having business representatives on governing boards who can bring the skills and expertise to help develop more entrepreneurial approaches to generating income. Benefits of involvement for local businesses include helping them attract and keep local workforces, build local reputation, and give them a competitive advantage in local markets. Charities can offer local businesses a range of opportunities for their staff around training, volunteering and fundraising which help local employees feel that they’re doing something meaningful to help the people and places that they know.

While the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on local inequality, climate change is also firmly on funder agendas now, and is another major area where charities can achieve little on their own. Many funders and investors will be looking to see how local charities add value through their involvement in local environmental issues. The ‘Devon Doughnut’ is an example of a voluntary initiative seeking to bring partners from all sectors together as a way of co-ordinating effort around building a socially and ecologically resilient economy. 

Local collaboration is central to ‘building back better’ as we come out of the effects of Lockdown and the pandemic. Many funders will be looking for evidence of collaboration and partnership as they increasingly seek to put more investment into strengthening communities. Charities have always depended on local support, but to benefit from the opportunities of the current environment they need to be less competitive and recognize how to add value through collaborative local action. They need to be active in networking and contributing to local partnership efforts, helping to build not just their own brands but the brand identity of their local areas. This means looking at the bigger picture and attracting funders who want to invest in areas as a whole, driving social change from the bottom up and not just in single causes. As we face the big challenges of the future, funders will increasingly be looking for the added value of local projects which have the potential to build mutually re-enforcing links between local business, voluntary and public sectors, and to make a sustainable difference to community well-being on all levels.

To learn more about how 'Effectively Embedding Your Charity within the Local Community Can Enhance Your Charity’s Impact and Income' check out the agenda for the The Voluntary Finance Series: Integrating Resilient Income Strategies Into Your Charity.

Voluntary Finance Series