Nicola Sturgeon appeared at The Gathering in Glasgow, facing criticism from those within the sector.
Leading third sector figures questioned First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the lack of stable funding being provided to organisations across Scotland, with the first minister unable to provide assurances to groups in an event on Wednesday morning.
The SNP leader pleaded for understanding from the sector despite a warning from leading figures taking part in a panel on the first day of The Gathering that voluntary organisations continue to be forced to provide redundancy notices to staff on an annual basis.
At a Breakfast with the event, Scotland’s First Minister underlined the important contribution the sector can make in helping to prevent crises, recognising the tension between short-term and longer-term planning.
Ms Sturgeon took questions from figures working across the third sector, as well as representatives from hosts, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).
The event saw the SNP leader challenged on multiple occasions on the lack of multi-year funding for third sector groups, pointing to the Scottish Government’s own uncertainty due to year-on-year funding changes from Westminster.
When asked what the Scottish Government would do to deliver sustainable funding streams across the sector, the first minister said: “I think where the sector is undervalued is in the contribution it can make to avoiding crisis. That’s what we’ve got to work with the sector towards now.
“To do that, you need to have the stability and sustainability within your own organisations, and in the TSIs that support the sector. In saying that I am not trying to suggest the next few years aren’t going to be challenging. We may have difficult decisions to make but we have to make sure the sector is supported.
“I hear all of the time the plea, and it is a legitimate one, for three-year funding. The big constraint we operate in, before I know how much my government has to spend, we have to wait on a chancellor in London, and they often don’t give us three-year warnings.”
But representatives from SCVO hit back, with head of policy, research and campaigns, Kirsten Hogg, criticising the first minister’s comparison of the third sector and the government with a warning that for many in the room they are still forced to serve staff with redundancy notices on a yearly basis.
She said: “It is however a very different organisation without certainty, it’s not an existential crisis for the government as to whether you’ll have a budget or even exist.
“If there really is the political will to support the sector and put the sector first, we have to have that certainty and stability.”
The first minister claimed the government and sector were on the same side, warning that the issue was not “as straightforward as people think”.
Ms Sturgeon said the work of Scotland’s third sector throughout the Covid-19 pandemic showed the need for less red tape in providing services across the country, as she pleaded with voluntary groups for understanding on the funding limitations her government faces.
The event, which saw over 200 people gather to listen to Ms Sturgeon answer questions on the future of the sector and how it can be supported in its work by the Scottish Government.
Among those in attendance was Barry Sillers, chair of Foundation Scotland, who asked how the government would work with the sector to meet the immediate needs of those most in need during the cost of living crisis, and how this will be balanced with early intervention and prevention.
He encouraged the sector to learn the lessons of Covid, including having a clear purpose, and communication as we face a crisis of similar proportions.
The first minister said: “That tension between short term and longer term is one of the most difficult things the government will deal with on a daily basis.
“Freeing up resources to do that is often the difficult bit. What we need to do in terms of the cost of living is very much about the here and now, investing to avoid individuals and families falling into crisis.
“What we have to do is do that in ways that fit with our longer-term plan. You’ve put your finger on the key strategic challenges we are facing right now.
Others in the room echoed the concerns about the growing cost of living crisis facing Scots, and how the sector can respond.
Niomi Nichol, from Third Sector Dumfries and Galloway, said the pandemic showed the third sector pull communities through hard times, asking what the government could do to help support groups and limit red tape.
The first minister said that post-Covid, work must be done to limit the bureaucratic limitations put on voluntary groups surrounding funding.
She added: “There are always going to be requirements to audit public money. It’s always going to be a balance.
“I don’t think that balance was absolutely right before covid, it probably wasn’t right during the initial phase of covid, moving a thousand miles an hour most days. It’s probably somewhere between that. We all have to work together going forward to see where that balance is.”
SCVO’s Kirsten Hogg, who was also on the panel, said that work still needed to be done on this, adding that throughout the pandemic much of the valuable work was possible due to the Third Sector being given “parity of esteem”, warning there are “elements of risk aversion that are creeping back in”.
Earlier in the event Ms Sturgeon had used her speech to attendees to express how glad she was to be back at The Gathering after more than two years off due to Covid-19.
She said: "This event is really important. It’s always a fantastic opportunity to discuss and address some of the key issues that your sector is facing.
"It’s an opportunity for me, on behalf of not just the Government but of the country, to highlight the incredible contribution that you and your thousands of colleagues across the country make to communities in every single corner of Scotland.
"I also understand that your sector – like the country as a whole - is facing some really significant challenges right now. This is not an easy time for anybody and it’s important for me and Government to recognise that. And while we can’t magic away all of the challenges we are facing, it’s important to make very clear our commitment to working with you to navigate our way through the period that lies ahead.
"I want to give you a message today that we will work with the sector to deliver as strongly as we can to support the services you deliver on a day-to-day basis. We will also continue to work as hard as we can to deliver the fairness and with as much certainty as possible.
"I often hear at this event and from the sector on a regular basis the desire and demand for multi-year funding settlements. We recognise the importance of that. As far as we can, as we often don’t have multi-year funding settlements ourselves, we want to deliver fairness and stability."