The Big Society: no cheque enclosed

By John Copps 11 February 2011

The twentieth-century American author Dorothy Parker once said that ‘cheque enclosed’ are the two most beautiful words in the English language. Judging from recent events, you might have wondered whether ‘Big Society’ are the two most ugly.

Over the last few days, the government’s big idea has received another onslaught from sceptics. At the top of the list of accusations is that public spending cuts makes a mockery of it. This started last week with Liverpool Council’s ‘withdrawal’ from the Big Society and ended with Dame Elisabeth Hoodless’ broadside about the future of volunteering.

The fact is that the government have so far failed to directly address the question of what effects the cuts will have on the Big Society. Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, is fond of trotting out the statistic that 90,000 charities don’t receive any state funding, which seems to suggest that Big Society can get on fine without any government support.

But we do have a problem. Whatever way you look at it, the charitable sector is going to get smaller. And it isn’t just about large charities losing out. Church halls, sports clubs and local playschemes, for example, all rely on public grants, and use volunteers that cost money to recruit, train and manage. Such organisations have already begun to disappear.

In view of the inevitable dip in financial resources, the most difficult question facing the charitable sector is about how it can continue to have impact. Resources have to be used smartly and charities have to get better at concentrating on what they do best. That is why in NPC’s pre-election Manifesto we argued for government to establish an impact fund to support charities. And it’s why we work with so many charities to help them learn from each other.

The Big Society has no cheque enclosed. Instead we’ve got to try to do more with what we have got, and that means a closer attention to where we are (and are not) having an impact.

Unfortunately we have no choice in the matter – resources simply have to stretch further.