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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Goodbye to a life less ordinary

This opinion piece is 12 months old

Retirement is something to look froward to Alan Staff as he praises the sector and colleagues but laments the perennial lack of funding that underpins the sector 

So, after thirteen years as CEO for Apex Scotland, and over twenty-five in the sector I finally get to throw away the blasted mobile device which rules my existence, clear the overcrowded diary, and look forward to not worrying about where the next amount of funding is going to come from.

Honestly, it has been an amazingly rewarding experience working with such great colleagues both in my own organisation and across the sector and wider afield, and there are few jobs which offer such a heady mixture of challenge, sense of value, potential to change things for the better and, yes, fun.

The commitment and dedication of those across the sector who despite uncertain prospects, constant threat of loss of funding, changing goalposts and, let’s face it, pretty poor remuneration for the value of what they do, still innovate, advocate, and collaborate their way through the minefields of public service, never ceases to amaze me and I hope inspires you.

Reflecting back on the last thirteen years in the justice sector I am aware of some pretty significant changes which have taken place during that time.

Those of you that know me well will be unsurprised to hear me say that most of these changes have been about finance, and the huge problem of taking wonderful sounding policies and turning them into reality while at the same time not significantly addressing the issue of how the funding will get from the policy makers to those who need to deliver the services.

I think one of my most frequently used analogies is that of the sausage machine – no matter what mixture of ingredients you put into it, and no matter what name you choose to refer to it, what comes out of a sausage machine will always be a sausage.

This is very useful when you consider state funded initiatives and the sort of social care activity contracts which many of us depend upon.

No matter how wonderful the plan, if the funding for it always goes through the same route, and in our case that is inevitably local government, it immediately becomes ensnared in a conflict of interest where the public sector is making decisions between its own service provision and using third sector services.

When I first joined Apex two significant changes were in play – the move away from direct government grants to third sector in favour of intermediaries and the huge change in Westminster which shifted much of what had been third sector activity into the private sector.

Both changes were introduced with a raft of promises that of course the sector would be looked after and continue to be valued and both, by and large, turned out to be as catastrophic to the sector as we suspected they would be.

Is it really so hard to consider changing what we all know is a criminally wasteful model

Most recently for us we have seen the loss of the European Social Fund amid endless promises that the Shared Prosperity Fund would be a direct and equal replacement and yet again we all know how that is working out don’t we?

I have been a member of any number of working groups on third sector funding models and they all have one common characteristic – they fade out with very little change as a result of their recommendations; indeed, some seem to spend far more time discussing public sector finance then anything to do with our sector which is disheartening.

Is it really so hard to consider changing what we all know is a criminally wasteful model, or are we really so wedded to local government and the public sector that we cannot envisage a day when we look at whole systems, whole challenges and say we need to match resources to need, not the other way around.

It seems that great faith has been put in local planning, third sector interfaces and the like, but these will automatically look to local charities and small local providers, not those with a more national remit so I wonder, without a clear champion for the sector at Government level or even any obvious commitment to the sector beyond platitudes about how much they love us, what the future actually holds for the sector as we know it in Scotland?

All that said, there remains the fantastic work done by representative bodies and in our case can I especially highlight the Criminal Justice Voluntary Sector Forum who have made real sector wide voice a reality and who continue to input effectively into policy across many layers.

As a sector we are, I believe, still suffering from some very old stereotypes, not least that we cannot speak with one voice and are too numerous and annoying.

All that said, there remains the fantastic work done by representative bodies

I once got taken to task for referring to us as a flock of seagulls, noisy, too numerous and generally unloved and greedy but tolerated because someone has to do the dirty work.

I am not so sure that is so far off the mark, and the practice of throwing funding out onto the beach and letting us all fight for it actually creates this very scenario.

The next time funders talk about the cluttered landscape I suggest you ask them who is responsible for the conditions which create it?

Thank you to those who have helped, advised, calmed, energised, or just tolerated me over my amazing time in this role, it has been a blast.

I know the sector is in good hands, and that you will keep fighting for a better way to do the best for those you serve.

Alan Staff is the outgoing CEO of Apex Scotland