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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.

We are the vulnerable sector

This opinion piece is about 5 years old

Community organisations’ very existences are at risk without reform

It’s ironic that the sector that supports the most vulnerable is the most vulnerable sector.

I’ve witnessed the need for charities to mop up the impact of welfare reform and austerity policies grow year on year.

If I had a thousand pounds for every business case or evidence of need paper I’ve written we would be very comfortable. If I add in the amount of monitoring, scrutiny and justification reports I’ve written we would be cash rich. But we are not. Instead, Fife Gingerbread is at risk of downsizing dramatically and withdrawing support to 253 families in Fife.

So what does Fife Gingerbread do? To quote one of our volunteers: “society shouldn’t judge the kind of people who would use Fife Gingerbread.

“Fife Gingerbread is there to help and support you till you are strong enough to do it on your own. They are a lifeboat… a safe lifeboat that floats beside you doing practical things that matter. When the ship hits the iceberg – they are the family’s lifeboat.”

We are a lifeboat – our work consists of one-to-one support in the home, and we respond to what we see; and what we see is usually abject poverty. Poverty that is hidden poverty. Houses that are not homes; no carpets, furniture, crockery, towels, bedding, food, toiletries or cleaning products.

A child pitching up at school doesn’t mean all is well. We know how proud parents are, they will mask the real situation because believe it or not they genuinely think social workers can just swoop in and take their children. They have no concept of how the system works and they are suspicious of anyone official, including teachers. So, they disengage.

Our volunteers have painted homes, cleaned homes, and gutted gardens. We have taken van loads to the tip and we have helped create order within hopeless situations. This is done while all the time supporting the parent to become stronger, more skilled and capable so their children sit alongside their peers in life’s pecking order.

Rhona Cunningham

Everyone is sympathetic but at a loss as to what to do when there are so many demands and too few funds

Rhona Cunningham

We will integrate the family into group work and holiday activity that always involves copious amounts of food. We over cater deliberately so there is waste food that they have to take it away. Our groups and activities are the bedrock for all of the relationships that are built and these relationships are what will see them through the rest of their life. We provide relationships, not a service, and that’s why we are a lifeboat. We keep them safe till they have others around them to keep them afloat in the future.

The people we support are sustainable, but we are not. We are extremely vulnerable, and if nothing is done we will drown one day. If we drown there is no lifeboat for Fife families and that will eventually create a crisis that no local authority can afford.

There is a now desperate need to review how the voluntary sector is funded. The level of funding from local authorities is minimal and is always what is left after the big ticket items; education and social work. In these times of austerity, where local authorities are struggling to respond to families in crisis, there needs to be a genuine shift to preventative work – not just warm words and wee tweaks.

For the last few years we have bounced from crisis to crisis, speaking with every key council officer and elected members across Fife. Everyone is sympathetic but at a loss as to what to do when there are so many demands and too few funds. I’ve been around long enough to remember when voluntary sector council funding was ring fenced and premises, utilities, phones, and photocopiers were all added benefits of the grant. Today the grant remains the same level and all of the added value has been withdrawn, sucking away the impact and ability to deliver.

Local authorities can make things happen if they are given guidance and support. I think it’s time the Scottish Government did just that. Give some radical thought to how we respond to vulnerable families and place the voluntary sector at the front of that response.

Rhona Cunningham is chief executive of Fife Gingerbread.