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Rethinking the frontline: Why infrastructure support matters

‘Everybody wants what we do, but nobody wants to pay for it.’ This is a lament frequently made by voluntary sector infrastructure organisations. The smaller or less experienced organisations most likely to benefit from their services are often those least able to afford it. Local authorities—struggling to fund core statutory duties let alone anything else besides—are cutting back support or narrowing the terms of what it should provide. Individual and institutional funders, meanwhile, often want to channel their support ‘to the frontline’.

Why does any of this matter? When so many charities are feeling the squeeze, why should funders care about the fate of infrastructure?

What infrastructure bodies can offer

For charities, the benefits are obvious: access to information, advice, training, and even professional services that cannot be provided in-house. Effective infrastructure bodies are also a channel of communication. They can act as conduit between the voluntary and statutory sectors, feeding intelligence both ways and helping the two to work better together. This is crucial at a time when local authorities are stretched and increasingly looking to the voluntary sector to pick up the slack. Some charities may have capacity to do this sort of engagement for themselves. But smaller organisations—which make up the bulk of the sector—often lack the time, resources and, frankly, the interest. Effective infrastructure can do this on their behalf.

For communities, the benefits are indirect; they stem from the effects that a vibrant, confident, well supported voluntary sector can have on individuals and neighbourhoods. When the statutory and voluntary sectors work well together—avoiding duplication and smoothing out user journeys between different services—everybody benefits.

For funders, the benefits are less obvious, but no less useful. The availability of support and guidance from infrastructure organisations can lead to much better funding applications from a wider range of organisations. Working with infrastructure bodies can be particularly useful when funders are trying to encourage more applications from a particular issue or geographical area. The Office of Civil Society has found that there is a correlation between levels of infrastructure support and rates of funding application success.

Of course, there is as much variety among infrastructure organisations as there is the charity sector as a whole. But at their best they can make a real difference. For funders, supporting those organisations that themselves support the frontline can be an effective way to make your money have a lasting impact.