“Infrastructure support fails small organisations”

I’m sure the article that Third Sector Online has referred to today — Kim Donahue’s “Have voluntary sector infrastructure support providers failed micro organisations?” in the latest issue of Voluntary Sector Review — is perfectly good.

Even so it is slightly annoying that truths that are reasonably well established in the third sector only become accepted once they are voiced in academic journals…

Certainly in Birmingham the different development needs of ‘micro-organisations’ are I think well-recognised.

Nonetheless, there is some truth in what the author says — that many infrastructure providers themselves lack the capacity and appropriate skills to support small, grassroots organisations, and that all too often there is a default position in the provision of support which assumes that the only way forward is growth and the ‘professionalising’ the organisation.

But the reason for this — at least, the historical reason — is largely to do with how infrastructure support has been funded.

Most funders have wanted tangible outcomes to be achieved — discrete chunks of work around which a unit price can be constructed and a payment point. Production of a business plan, for instance, or incorporation, or achievement of a quality standard. Such payment regimes tend to predetermine not just the type of support offered but also its purpose.

I say historical reason because this problem has been largely resolved by removing the money.

As anyone who has been involved in the government’s Transforming Local Infrastructure process will know, the critical problem now is not how to finesse the purpose of infrastructure support, but how to provide any at all.

In the past, there has been a very strong assumption that infrastructure support is a ‘transaction’ — an ‘expert’ of some sort provides the skills, guidance and advice that is required and the recipient benefits. A transaction has taken place — for which the provider can then be paid.

There are some who have fundamental objections to such a model, and they may well be right — at least for certain kinds of support. One of the issues we have grappled with in Birmingham is how to move away from this ‘transaction model’ of support to something that looks more like an ‘ecosystem’ of support — where mutual support prevails and organisations are helped to help each other.

In the long run it must probably be admitted that such an environment would probably be more healthy — as long as it doesn’t mutate into a sink-or-swim culture. Mutual support is probably more in keeping with the spirit of ‘capacity-building’, may breed less dependency, and could also help spread  skills more effectively at the grassroots.

These may seem arcane issues but they are important — certainly if, as I do, you believe that there is a role for the planned support and development of third sector organisations so that they can become stronger and more effective at what they do. (And at what they want to do, I should add.) They are doubly important because the same issues are playing themselves out in social enterprise support, although here, they have a slightly different dimension — that of whether business support for social enterprises should be free at the point of delivery, or a commercial transaction.

The problem with markets — as I was saying to my old friend Chris Newis at lunch today (yes, we know how to do Christmas lunch) — is that they are difficult to reconcile with equitable distribution, and even harder to reconcile with social purpose.

But that’s a discussion for another day — it goes to the heart of what social enterprise is about and where (and how comfortably) it sits within a neo-liberal conception of markets and society.

UPDATE 12/12/11: One or two people have asked how to access the article referred to here. Well, so far I haven’t been able to. Voluntary Sector Review subscription and sales info is here. Single issues are available by emailing tpp<hyphen>sales<at>bristol<dot>ac<dot>uk for info.

However, all articles from the Review are apparently also archived within the Third Sector Knowledge Portal, part of the Third Sector Research Centre. But I have just run three or four searches and haven’t found Donahue’s article.  This may just mean that articles from the latest issue of the Review have not yet been uploaded. I am trying to find out and if I manage to locate the article I will make it accessible here.



  1. Phil Burrows Reply

    There has been a real emphasis on providing business support services that focus on less tangible things like leadership and customer services than technical support like architects, structural engineers and quantity surveyors. For any community that owns a building, technical aid is essential, yet still quite difficult to access.
    I would like to see technical support put on an equal footing with business support. Even for organisations without buildings, technical support for things like IT, websites, graphic design and print are still essential.

  2. Charles Rapson Reply

    It depends on your approach and the individual infrastructure organisation. SUSTAiN is far from perfect when it comes to supporting smaller organisations – as you say, the money has been focussed on growth, merger, commissioning, etc which tends to marginalise the small groups. But it doesnt have to be that way. We get loads of support from local businesses and we generate income through Colebridge Communications and Waterloo Woodwork that gives us a degree of leeway.

    It’s still far short of the ecosystem you mention but its more inclusive than other models I’ve seen.

    You clearly had a good lunch. I’m of to the Colebridge Trust christmas do now. It cant all be work.

Leave a Reply