Community services under siege

Deirdre Garvey takes an inside look at the Irish community and voluntary sector.

There is a sense at present of the country collectively holding its breath, waiting to see what the new Government and political landscape will bring us. Nobody is expecting a quick fix – but, at the same time, we’re all hoping that things do now begin to stabilise at the very least.
This is certainly true of the Irish community and voluntary sector, the area in which I have spent the last two decades of my working life. There have always been challenges facing the sector (and sometimes a challenge is exactly what you need), but the current crisis goes way beyond a mere challenge, threatening as it does the ability of community and voluntary organisations to continue delivering their services to those who most need them and articulating their needs.

Deirdre Garvey
Deirdre Garvey

Unsurprisingly, funding cuts are perhaps the most pressing issue facing the sector today. Many grants from central and local authorities have either ceased entirely or been drastically cut back. It remains to be seen what precise approach to funding the sector that the new Government will take. Fine Gael has talked of its intention to introduce ‘Social Investment Bonds’ that will share audited exchequer savings with community and voluntary organisations that deliver social programmes. However, this policy, if fully enacted, does nothing to tackle one of the main problems facing the sector, which is the lack of a coherent multi-annual approach to funding. The much vaunted public service savings that the Government wishes to make cannot, after all, be relied upon indefinitely (as why would those same one-off savings be available on an ongoing basis?)

At the same time that we are worrying about how to fund the services that the sector provides, the demand for those services has skyrocketed. A recent survey of the 880 plus member organisations of The Wheel found that 73 per cent had experienced an increase in demand for their services. This is seemingly related to the fact that people who were just managing to keep their heads above water prior to the crisis, quickly found themselves slipping under. And that is where the Irish community and voluntary sector has traditionally come in, helping these people to regain a foothold once more. The slashing of funding to the sector however has made this extremely difficult to achieve.

A recent survey of the 880 plus member organisations of The Wheel found that 73 per cent had experienced an increase in demand for their services

So, what’s the way forward then?

Well, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Faced with these enormous challenges, people and organisations within the sector have been seeking creative solutions. For instance, rather than close down operations entirely, some organisations have decided to merge. This process has led to significant savings (in such areas as rent and staffing costs), which have enabled those organisations to continue in a new, albeit scaled-down, capacity. My own organisation, The Wheel, has been active in that area too. With funding from the Vodafone Ireland Foundation, we are running a unique ‘Collaborate to Innovate’ programme – which is a first in Ireland, for any sector. Its aim is to foster greater cooperation and joint working within the sector and I am happy to say that 36 organisations are already involved.

Rather than close down operations entirely, some organisations have decided to merge

The pre-election announcement of a ‘structured dialogue’ to deepen the partnership between the community and voluntary sector and the State is also a welcome development  – one which, I believe, can be utilised to address some of the support and development needs of organisations that are currently struggling to maintain their community services.

As we enter into this new way of doing things in these tough times that we are living in, I believe that we must remember the reason we do what we do in our voluntary organisations is so that we can continue to serve the people who rely most on our services. As long as we do not lose sight of the fact, I am confident that the Irish community and voluntary sector will find a way to weather the current storm.

Deirdre Garvey, Chief Executive Officer, The Wheel.