Challenges and opportunities for the VCS in 2019

Andy Dean, CEO Community Action Northumberland

Back in the autumn of 2015, after 3 months as Chief Exec at CAN (Community Action Northumberland), I offered a few reflections on the opportunities and challenges going forward. After a further 3 years in the role, it is interesting to reflect on these words in relation to the challenges and opportunities facing many voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations in 2019. Back in 2015 I said:

“Leading CAN in its role to support the rural communities of Northumberland is a great privilege.  Creative staff, progressive trustees and CAN’s track record stretching back to the 1950s provide fantastic building blocks.

“The environment, of course, is hugely challenging.  Shrinking public finances and the inevitable service reductions which ensue are presenting challenges to rural areas more than any other.  Having worked in Northumberland wearing various hats for over 20 years, there has certainly never been a time quite like this.

“However, Northumberland and CAN have much to build on.  The connection between people and their environment is palpable in Northumberland and the spirit of enterprise and self-help is strong.  There is a genuine passion coursing through Northumberland, not only to protect what is valued, but to capitalise on strengths, innovate and create truly sustainable communities.”

The first of these paragraphs absolutely holds true. It is a privilege to lead an organisation such as CAN which is passionate about helping people, communities and their organisations. In the face of never-ending financial, political and other challenges it is essential that VCS organisations remain focussed on making a difference, 100 per cent committed to our objectives and focussed on why we exist.

The second paragraph is also true except, of course, we can add more challenges to the list faced by VCS organisations in 2019 – not least the uncertain impact of Brexit.

As for the third paragraph, three years down the line I wouldn’t change a word.

One of the biggest challenges we face is the continued strive to diversify our income streams and enhance our delivery capacity to meet the growing needs which exist – in an environment where, if we are not careful, VCS organisations waste time competing with eachother rather than building on what we are each good at and on services that are valued.

For what it is worth, I would offer the following 5 tips on maximising opportunities and dealing with challenges in 2019:

  • Good relationships are the key to anything positive. Trust has to be earned, but it is a powerful commodity. Whether it is between staff and trustees or between organisations, positive relationships are fundamental to making a sustained difference – don’t mess them up.
  • Regardless of the organisation it is the people that make it what it is. Get the right people, release their strengths and support creativity (and challenge) and success is highly likely – as long as you are well organised.
  • Support local organisations to deliver. We have all seen large scale, time limited initiatives come and go. Often these can actually undermine existing local initiatives rather than build on them. That doesn’t mean that coordinating a range of more local projects and activities isn’t a good idea. That is just what we have done with several of our activities (Warm Hubs, village halls Community-led Housing, etc.) The challenge, and the opportunity, is to use this coordinating role to promote additional activity, access more resources and enable local organisations and people to deliver.
  • Charities must maintain a firm focus on their objectives in everything they do. This can be difficult given the pressures to generate income and maintain organisational viability – this goes for public sector organisations and private businesses too. I would argue that keeping a close eye on the ‘core business’ is essential in maintaining the purpose of any organisation. Stray from this and the purpose of the organisation’s existence disappears.
  • Keep smiling. This may sound a little flippant, but everyone needs and deserves to enjoy what they do. That’s when we are at our best and when we achieve the most. This can often feel difficult when so many circumstances and events are beyond our control. However, as a charity working for others it is, perhaps, easier to smile when we see the real impact of our efforts.

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