Big Society: Big Dilemma? – Part One

Regular readers will hopefully have noticed the gap since the last blog article. That it coincided with the election period was just that: coincidental. However, news that sixteen charities are under investigation for activities in the campaign period which may be judged to be party political demonstrates the risks. But I wasn’t keeping my blog zipped for that reason. We’ve just been hugely busy taking stock of our annual impact and resetting the Corporate Plan.

The results are stunning: especially given the recession. Amongst other things:

· We increased our effective case work by over 10% in 2009/10, enabling 1,328 people to avoid or escape from crisis and get their lives back on track

· We increased the input of volunteers by 9% to 44,000 hours

· The notional financial value of pro-bono business support from supporting commercial companies rose by 62%

In addition our 3 social enterprises engaged more trainees, saved more waste and CO2 and boosted earned income from 8 to 14% of the charity’s turnover.

Cyrenians also used its experience and business acumen to help community groups to establish new community led enterprises and activities such as Greyfriars Community Project and the Royal Edinburgh Community Gardens that will be sustainable and doing good into the future without too much dependence on the public purse.

So as it turns out, Cyrenians is now a great example of the Big Society in operation. We have an amazing track record of mobilising community volunteers, engaging philanthropy and pro-bono support from commercial businesses, empowering local communities to create sustainable solutions and creating successful social businesses with reduced dependence on public funding.

However, we do all that not to relieve government, at whatever level, of its responsibility; but to do it on its behalf or to ‘add value’ – producing a benefit that is way over and above what can be afforded from the public purse.

During his campaign Nick Clegg described Big Society as like being invited to a party in your local pub only to discover that it’s your own credit card behind the bar.

However, I’m prepared to keep an open mind and look for the best in what develops. Some of the specific proposals have potential to take us forward towards a more socially successful society. Our duty is to work with the powers that be get the best deal for our cause and beneficiaries.

But charities like Cyrenians will eventually face a big dilemma if it turns out that Big Society is there to replace funding of critical front-line services, or to diminish rights to services or to compromise quality or essential professional input to effective community action.


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