Interview with Neil Smith, Policy Manager at the Office of the Third Sector - Refugee Council
February 6, 2009

Interview with Neil Smith, Policy Manager at the Office of the Third Sector

By Penny McLean and Ezechias Ngendahayo

As Policy Manager for the Community Action & Campaigning Team at the Office of the Third Sector (OTS), Neil Smith is responsible for the government’s Grassroots Grants programme, Community Assets programme, Community Alliance support, Innovative Campaigning work and the Communitybuilder programme with Communities and Local Government (CLG).

Neil’s background is varied: he has worked in the public and private sectors as well as being involved in the third sector. He is a Director at his local community association and supports small groups with internet services. He has worked with CLG and OTS for two years now, becoming a full-time civil servant in April 2008.

We asked him about the Government’s new Grassroots Grants programme and other OTS initiatives that could benefit refugee community organisations.

Q: What is the Grassroots Grants programme?

Neil Smith: The Grassroots Grants programme is a £130million government funding scheme which aims to support access to small grants for small volunteer led “grassroots” groups, whose key aim is voluntary action within their local communities. The funding programme runs from 2008-2011. Grants of up to £5,000 are available to groups with an annual income of less than £20,000 (this can be taken as an average over the last three financial years) who are running activities to strengthen communities in response to local need.

Q: What are the OTS’ plans for the Grassroots Grants funding stream?

NS: In accordance with our latest Comprehensive Spending Review, the OTS has no plans to increase the maximum £5,000 grant, and there are no plans to extend the programme beyond March 2011.

Q: The Grassroots Grants programme is being administered by different organisations across England; how is the OTS ensuring that this funding stream is being consistently managed and equally accessed in all English regions?

NS: One of the key aims of the Grassroots Grant funding stream is to ensure that grants are allocated at a local level according to local need. For this to happen effectively, we felt that there was no need to have a centralised process. We wanted to find local funders who would better understand local needs and issues.

Taking a locally led approach does of course bring with it challenges; working with local partners means that each partner is different – in size, capacity and in the way they work. We selected the Community Development Foundation (CDF) as the most appropriate organisation to identify and make decisions about the best placed local funders and organisations to manage parts of the funding stream. The CDF has a very firm community development approach which the OTS likes as a way of delivering community development work nationally, and an excellent track record in delivering small grants programmes for Government, such as the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. We are confident that they will play a key role in ensuring good practice across the English regions.

Q: Many organisations are now concerned about how the ‘credit crunch’ might affect them, for example, reduction in charitable donations and so on. What is the OTS planning to do with regard to the effect this might have on small community groups like refugee community organisations RCOs?

NS:  RCOs play a vital role for the communities they serve, however they do seem to be marginalised within the third sector and need support to build good relationships at a local, regional and national level to help their organisations secure funding and to build a stronger voice.

The OTS is currently developing an “economic downturn action plan” which seeks to address the issues that will face all parts of the third sector as a result of the current economic climate. This plan will be published in the coming months. We acknowledge that the effect of the economic downturn is likely to increase the demand for charitable services, as there is likely to be increased ‘social stress’ which will impact on Town Halls across England. But this could be an opportunity for small community groups to step in where services are not meeting the increased demand and needs of local individuals, families and communities.

The risk in the current economic climate is that the third sector may come under increasing financial pressure, but at this stage it is difficult to tell if community groups will be adversely impacted. We think that as well as more demand for services there may well be more opportunity for the third sector in terms of helping statutory service providers improve the reach and quality of the services they provide. However, to be successful, it may be that community groups will need to modernise to compete successfully. Total public funding (from local and central government) reported by the voluntary and community sector has doubled from less than £5 billion in 1996/97 to more than £10 billion per year in 2004/05. It is unlikely that more money will be available in the near future.

The current economic climate means that access to funding could be more competitive, and perhaps the sector will lose vital services at a local level, as many small groups like RCOs have a very particular approach which meet the needs of “hard to reach” groups. As part of OTS’s work in relation to better public services, the Office of the Third Sector is delivering a programme with the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) called the National Programme for Third Sector Commissioners.

The programme will engage with up to 2,000 commissioners working across the public sector to increase awareness of the contribution the third sector can make in commissioning of public services. It will set up a “community of practice” to share good ideas and has already started working with business schools and universities to provide accredited training. The initial 2,000 commissioners being trained will include staff in primary care trusts, the National Offender Management Service, local councils, and others who have a large impact on the third sector.

We hope that this will help to change the complexion of public service commissioning.

Q: What general advice would you give to RCOs who are struggling in the current funding climate?

NS: It is essential for RCOs to build relationships at a local level in order to better promote their services and activities. This might mean developing contacts with local authorities and funders so that they are aware of what is happening locally. Groups might ask “does their local community anchor know they exist?” Groups can’t rely on people to come to them – they have to develop a higher local profile. The onus of responsibility is in the hands of RCOs and those organisations supporting them. The third sector is already competitive given the limited funding available, therefore RCOs really need to adapt to this and do all that they can to take advantage of any opportunities.

When we talk about “empowerment”, we mean communities taking responsibility – campaigning, vocalising, and articulating their needs to help shape the place they live in. Again this is what RCOs also do well. However, it is RCOs’ responsibility to educate people, including funders, local authorities, service providers and policy makers about the role of RCOs with regard to community cohesion and the particular needs and barriers that refugees face. Interconnectedness is crucial – if you’re not  engaging with the other voluntary and community groups in your local community it’s hard to have any influence, and you could be disadvantaged.

I know that RCOs do important work in challenging circumstances and I want to see them more strongly woven into the local, regional and national third sector tapestry – I see this as essential to RCOs sustaining and growing their services. Those RCOs that already do this successfully can and should share any learning with others in their networks, including the pitfalls as well as the successes!

Q: What is the OTS’ knowledge of RCOs’ role with regard to refugee integration and what can the OTS do to help the refugee sector develop as a strong component of the third sector?

NS: The OTS recognises that RCOs play a key role within their own communities, in particular a “bonding role” to first integrate their own communities with one another; for example signposting Iraqi refugees to relevant support, providing social contacts and so on. “Social bonding” is essential for improving community cohesion, but if RCOs don’t “bridge” with other refugee groups and the host community, this may not serve their interests. The “bridging” role is indeed the most challenging role for RCOs – to ensure that there is a connection between their communities and the host community – but a vital one.

Q: With regard to “single group funding” – the recent statement made by Hazel Blears – “We have concluded that guidelines from central government are not the way forward. Instead, we look to local leaders to show a measured approach, drawing on their knowledge of what’s happening in their neighbourhood…”  What is meant by a ‘local leader’ and how will the government ensure that a fair decision process is made with regard to funding single nationality groups at local, regional and national level?

NS: It isn’t appropriate for the OTS to comment on the detail of this. This issue is more appropriate for the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to respond to. However, we very much welcome the discussion that developing the guidelines has promoted. For me, Hazel Blears’ comments do underline the necessity of ensuring a fuller engagement with local authorities and with other third sector groups. This is a very positive message.

Q: Isn’t there a problem with the needs of refugee communities being overlooked simply because they are often overlooked in official statistics?

NS: Statistics are very important to ensure that the needs of individuals and groups are met. There are some organisations who hold numbers of small charities, such as the Charity Commission but again RCOs need to play a role by being connected locally, regionally and nationally in order to make the case for better statistical representation.

OTS has recently funded a survey of the third sector. This survey was sent to a random sample of 104,000 Third Sector Organisations. The National Survey of Third Sector Organisations (NSTSO) will gather the views of the leaders of Third Sector Organisations in England including voluntary and community organisations, charities, and social enterprises.

The survey is the largest ever of the third sector. The overall aim of the survey is to measure the quality of support for the third sector in every local area in England. The survey asks third sector organisations to share their experiences. This will help give local government the information it needs to ensure an environment for a thriving third sector, and to meet new performance targets.