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An approach to tackling complex problems, sustainably

  • When Healthy London Partnership began working with communities to tackle childhood obesity two years ago, I knew we were in for a challenge.

    Not only is childhood obesity an epidemic in London – with one in three children leaving primary school overweight or obese – and putting an increasing strain on the NHS; but we’re also seeing cuts to public health and prevention budgets.

    So our challenge was – how do we tackle childhood obesity in a way that is financially sustainable?

    The approach that evolved was one that included the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector, and which can be applied to almost any community-based challenge, anywhere.

    With an increasingly challenged health and care system, the need to stem the flow of demand is essential. We need place based services which understand the challenges, needs and assets of the communities around them; who know how to connect with those groups who are sometimes called ‘hard to reach’ and who are able to tailor and personalise their approach.

    I believe that organisations in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector are some of the best to help fill this role.

    There are many examples of where they are already doing so, and providing invaluable support to their local communities. Not only do they often share many of the same health and wellbeing goals as public sector organisations, but they often add additional social value through the employment of local people, volunteering and training opportunities. On top of this, they are able to harness additional capital toward health goals – whether that be through trading revenue, grants, fundraising or social investment.

    Could the sector therefore play a critical role in tackling complex problems, in a sustainable way?  I am one of a growing tide of people who believe this to be the case.

    That’s why it’s so important that funders, including public sector commissioners, recognise this and do more to support the sector.

    Data shows that public sector funding to smaller charities has fallen by a third, and although they are trying to adapt to these changes by becoming more enterprising, they don’t always have the skills or support around them to do this successfully. A resulting 23,000 charities stopped operating across England and Wales between 2008 and 2013.

    We know that sustainable, diverse business models are possible for many voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations, and organisations like Localgiving are supporting this transition. Between 2008/09 and 2012/13, small and medium-sized charities increased their income through fundraising and charitable trading by up to 60%; and 31% of social enterprises reported making a profit last year.

    Funders should understand the unique role of their local voluntary, community and social enterprise sector but also their support needs.

    Where an organisation is creating positive impact in the local community, funders have a joint responsibility to support the shift toward a sustainable business model where possible. This is firstly important for their local communities to ensure they continue to have access to high quality and effective local services. Secondly it’s also important to reduce reliance of voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations on public sector funding - therefore reducing the risk posed by any future funding cuts and ensuring public sector funding is spent both effectively and efficiently.

    In my role as project manager in Healthy London Partnership’s prevention team, I’ve written this guide which discusses some of the ways commissioners can begin to take a more proactive role in supporting their local sector to deliver sustainable impact. This can be done within existing resources and can include adapting commissioning processes to recognise wider social value and ensuring money can reach smaller organisations; it can include supportive – or incubation - techniques such as sharing knowledge and skills with local organisations, brokering partnerships and networks or access to assets like office space; it could also include using blended finance to drive the development of sustainable income streams.

    While commissioners have a role to play, they aren’t solely responsible for the sustainability of their local voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. The sector itself will need to look within to ensure it is demonstrating impact and developing sustainable business models, including forming partnerships and alliances where appropriate. And other funders, infrastructure bodies, and the private sector will need to come together to ensure the value provided by local voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations is sustainable.

    Read and share the Commissioning Guide here.

    For more information about the guide or the work of Healthy London Partnership please email nwlccc.healthyinlondon@nhs.net

    Jessica Attard, Healthy London Partnership

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