Blitz mentality kicks in

Children’s charity Aberlour is taking steps to survive the cuts, by Stephen Naysmith

ABERLOUR is one of Scotland’s leading providers of children’s services, but it relies on local authorities for around 90% of its income.

That makes the charity a striking example of the challenges facing the voluntary sector.

“We would fold tomorrow if local authorities stopped contracting our services,” admits head of policy Alex Cole Hamilton, who also sits on the board of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).

Change is being forced on the sector, and Aberlour has made massive steps towards changing the way it works, but it is “like turning an oil tanker”, Mr Cole Hamilton admits. It has not been without pain, either. More than 40 members of staff have left over the last year, either because of services being forced to close or being redesigned as budgets are cut.

The oil tanker metaphor refers to the idea that charities might need to take a fresh look at volunteering, even as some are forced to lay off staff. “The term Big Society is quite toxic but there is a vision there,” Mr Cole Hamilton explains.

“The culture of volunteering has ebbed away. Big service-providing organisations have forgotten what it is like to appeal to people’s better natures. Organisations like ours are so flat out right now that we don’t have the resources to adequately market ourselves to volunteers.”

Mr Cole Hamilton and Aberlour’s chief executive Derek Bottom are keen to point out that Aberlour is in good shape to survive a straitened financial climate in which councils are routinely asking charities they work with to accept cuts of 4–5% in funding – if they wish to continue funding projects at all.

Some are critical of charities for becoming so reliant on funding from councils and the state. Mr Bottom doesn’t see the dependence on local authority as a weakness, however.

“You could say local authorities have become too dependent upon us,” he says. “We have responded to a need for the work we can do. Could we deliver the same volume of work if we didn’t have funding? Absolutely not. We don’t have the donations coming from Joe Public on the street.

“But these are tough times. What we have to do is be willing to transform services to make sure they are what is needed.”

Charities will also have to work harder to demonstrate what they are achieving, he believes. This could include being more specific about what they will deliver and how long it will take – Aberlour works with young people who are often in chaotic circumstances, for example, and change is rarely achieved in just a few months,.

Charities also have to realise the climate could include demands that they share costs, such as office space, and demonstrate such frugality when bidding for contracts. “Local authorities are our biggest customer. If they are being asked to embrace the shared services agenda, it is going to be hard to justify stand-alone back office functions, for instance.” As a result, Aberlour is already sharing some office space in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

Demonstrating the widest possible impact will also be helpful for charities, Mr Cole Hamilton adds. “There is a blitz mentality in the sector. We are used to working with very little – even if it is less than before we are up for a challenge. But we want to be saying, ‘You’ve got less money but we can show you how you can spend that money better’.

“For example, in our dependency work with families, a council is helping us work with parents, but they are also getting improved attendance at school, children behaving better, possible routes into employment for the parents, not just what they think they’re buying.”

Meanwhile 60% of women coming into one Glasgow Aberlour residential project are involved in prostitution, and staff say none are when they leave. “Glasgow wants to see a reduction in prostitution across the city – so we are helping with that. We need to get better at blowing our own trumpet.”

Councils also need to be held to account, Mr Cole Hamilton suggests. “There is a disconnect between what the Scottish Government would like local authorities to do and what they actually do.”

The concordant between the two – which set out goals which councils agreed to deliver – was good on paper, he explains. “The councils signed up to laudable aims, but that is where the relationship stopped. There was no accountability, no measurement and no sanctions.”

By way of example, he points out that Glasgow City Council committed to getting 2000 disabled 16-29-year-olds in the city into work. They managed to find jobs for just 12.

“Clearly they were wide of the mark by a considerable amount. But so what? Nothing happened. If there aren’t sanctions, what’s the point?”

The importance of this is that charities such as Aberlour are fearful, particularly where the services they provide are not required by law. Mr Bottom adds: “Where young people and children are going to be hit hardest, is where the service the voluntary sector provide is not statutory. I don’t think there’s a wicked desire to hit the voluntary sector with a larger saving than they might be taking on board themselves. People sitting at desks in local authorities are having to make decisions they don’t want to make. But looking at their portfolio they are more likely to be targeting those services which are outreach-related. They may just decide they are not going to do that any more.”

At the same time, charities must insist on the importance of what they do, both men insist. Riven Vincent, the Bristolian mum who surrendered her daughter to social services is not an isolated case. “We provide respite services to many parents like Riven Vincent, who without our support could be one late night hospital dash from surrender,” Mr Cole Hamilton says. “If we don’t invest in respite care, how many more parents will say I love my child, but can’t do any more?”

What may be a common outcome is rationing, with young people having to wait longer before they receive services such as Aberlour’s. In cases where child protection is involved that could even be dangerous. “When you cut public spending you will disproportionately affect those who need the support most,” he adds. “There is no shortage of referrals. If the time people are on waiting lists creeps up, the risk will also increase.”