Dawn Austwick

Tackling poverty: how can funders help?

The debate around the nature of poverty in the UK is becoming increasingly polarised.  As Julia Unwin argues in her book, Why Fight Poverty?, and as we’ve seen from the responses to programmes such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street, there is a fierce debate about whether individual behaviour or wider structures are responsible for poverty.  Unsurprisingly, this choice has produced a stalemate which has led many people to conclude that widespread poverty is inevitable.

The reality is biting our communities pretty hard.  Food bank users have reportedly tripled in a year and on average three food banks open every day.  Local authorities are having to make tough spending decisions on services that people depend on.

In her book, Julia makes a powerful and compelling case that current levels of poverty are neither inevitable nor acceptable, and that we need to value people who live in poverty and recognise that ‘they’ are people like ‘us’. We are all ‘us’ – a notion that chimes with an asset-based approach which suggests that  we need to give people in poverty the power both to develop their skills and talents and to tackle the issues that hold them back.

On this theme of tackling need by building on the talents of people and communities, I’ve seen at first hand the sector’s capacity to be imaginative in a recent visit to the Sobar project in Nottingham. This alcohol-free bar and cafe has rejuvenated an unused building in the heart of Nottingham, open to the whole community as well as providing a combination of drug and alcohol recovery services alongside a specialist recruitment service. Rather than simply being ‘treated’, people in recovery are taking the lead in the design and delivery of this service – and the results really impressed me. 

Voluntary organisations and social enterprises across the country have a long and proud record of using grant funding to tackle poverty and empower people, reaching those whose needs and talents are not met by traditional state-run services.  The Matthew Tree project in Bristol, offers a programme of support including counselling, debt and health advice in addition to emergency food; but there are also new models emerging such as the new social supermarket in Goldthorpe in Barnsley, offering people low-cost food and drink.

Funders such as the Big Lottery Fund have a duty to listen to the sector and give them the support to be able to tackle poverty effectively.  This was the theme of a roundtable I recently attended with a number of sector representatives in Nottingham.  We explored how ‘need’ and demand for services is changing, and discussed whether the sector is leading the creation of a new settlement which responds to need and empowers people, or being overwhelmed by rising levels of demand?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I heard a shared experience of steeply increasing demand for services from vulnerable people with increasingly complex multiple needs. There was concern that the sector is struggling to meet the needs of individuals who typically don’t qualify for statutory services, building up potential future demand for services such as health and social care. Attendees felt there was a real lack of understanding of how the VCS can reach people and places in ways that the statutory services struggled to do, and to transform lives at a very human level.

I was impressed with how different organisations have responded to these conditions. Often staff have made real sacrifices to make this possible. However, I was also struck by a general feeling from attendees that the easier savings have already been made, and that generally funds through trading isn’t an option for everyone.

At the end of the session, I posed the question “how can Big Lottery Fund and other funders help?” Responses include maintaining funding opportunities for covering core costs; the need for long-term strategic funding; funding to help the people who fall through the gaps of statutory provision; and helping the sector to tell the story of its impact.

It is clear that the nature of need and poverty is changing. The lessons for funders in supporting the sector to respond in this challenging environment will be one of the questions I want us to explore when we shortly kick off a conversation about our strategic framework to 2021.  It strikes me it will be one of the most important questions we’ll ask.

Dawn Austwick is chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund

  • Chris Hornet

    We’ve spent a lot of time scratching our heads as to why our leaders can’t see the evidence before them – that effective investment in volunteer management leads to more effective volunteering and consequently a whole host of better outcomes for users, the organisation, volunteers and the wider community. And, as we can now see, the problems this failure to invest causes when the money stops flowing.

    We’ve talked a lot about a failure to evidence volunteer manmagement impact, a failure to communicate properly etc. But maybe one of the key problems is actually our leaders. Rob’s article demonstrates that many of our leaders are not ‘leaders’ in the true sense but actually people who’ve demonstrated their excellence in management and thus been promoted to the role of leadership on the basis the terms are interchangeable

    Consequently when times get tough they revert back to what they know they best – managing existing resources ie how to raise more money – rather than showing vision and leadership about how to develop new resources, new ways of working and the new opportunties this can create.

  • John P Sharp

    John, I could not agree more with your comments. The odd thing about “common sense” is that it is not very common!

    John Sharp
    Sharp Solutions

  • Eowyn Rohan

    Sadly, organisations are not always led by competent owners. The majority of businesses do not consider training to be significant, do not invest in any form of sponsorship, may not even provide placements for candidates at College/University, and yet still expect the external system to deliver “Ideal Staff”.

    Unless SME’s accept a modicum of risk, ownership and responsibility for training, they only have themselves to blame if, rather than perfecting the trait of Common Sense, their competitive position becomes unsustainable.