In recent weeks, I’ve been reading some of the Third Sector Research Centre(TSRC)’s work on Below the Radar organisations. As TSRC’s researchers explain here, “‘Below the radar’ has become a short-hand term for small community groups who are either not registered with the Charity Commission or other regulatory bodies and/or lack a regular, substantial annual income.”
As noted in Angus McCabe’s paper Below the Radar in a Big Society, published in December last year, it’s difficult to work out how many of these organisations there are: “In terms of measuring, or quantifying, the Third/Civil Society Sector there are now almost 171,000 registered charities in the UK (Kane et al., 2009). Once we broaden the focus to the wider, ‘below the radar’ community sector it becomes far more difficult to make any claims about the exact size of the sector though it is these groups which, numerically, represent the mass of activity below the tip of the iceberg of registered charities and social enterprises.”
The best guesses are ‘600,000 – 900,000’ (New Economics Foundation) and ‘870,000’ (NCVO). There’s an apochraphal story that, in the 1990s, low-paid Americans proudly informed by Democratic politicians that Bill Clinton had created millions of jobs were often heard to retort ‘Yes, I know, I’m doing three of them’. I imagine the situation is fairly similar when it comes to the people playing leading roles Below the Radar organisations.
Up until recently, much of my involvement in Below the Radar groups had remained below my own radar, let alone anyone else’s. As with many other people, I suppose, it’s just some stuff that I do.
The community organisations I’m involved with (or have previously been involved with) beyond my job have mostly been related to literature. On Sunday evenings, I’m the door man and often the MC – this involves introducing proceedings not rapping – for the weekly poetry readings at Torriano Meeting House. Torriano is a small community arts venue run entirely by volunteers. As well as hosting nearly 50 poetry readings a year – guest readers this year included Scottish Makar (the equivalent of the poet laureate), Liz Lochhead – it also hosts poetry workshops, drama rehearsals and plays, storytelling, art exhibitions and local campaign group meetings.
If we were in the tick box business we’d have well over 2000 visits/usages/interactions(?) – delivered by five or more Below the Radar groups – per year to input into someone’s database.
Up until 2007, the London Borough of Camden supported this activity by providing a grant that covered the cost of renting the Meeting House (which they own). Since then, we’ve had to pay around £10,000 a year in rent – out of a turnover of of less than £20,000 – meaning that fundraising to keep going is an ongoing battle.
Another group, I have been involved with is the now defunct local writers group, Word 4 Word Green, which (when it was still going) was effectively described by this promotional listing: “We are a creative writing group that meets every Saturday (with the exception of the first Sat in the month) in the 2nd Floor Community Room, Wood Green Library, London N22. We’re a friendly, mixed ability, mixed interest group – all comers welcome. Fees are £2/ £4 unwaged/ waged, unless we get a professional writer in to run a session (as we occasionally do); then it’s £5.”
Most weekly meetings involved a member of the group turning up with some writing exercises and/or example of bits of writing that they liked, and leading the group in doing some writing. Attendances ranged from as few as 3 to as many as 16. The group ran for nearly ten years (and spawned the literature events group Utter Spoken Word!) before folding earlier this year.
Word 4 Word folded partly because the people who’d been organising wanted use their time and energy to do other things but primarily because the library where the sessions took place had introduced a £20 weekly charge to use the room.
In that instance, the London Borough of Haringey apparently valued a diverse, inclusive, self-funded community arts organisation at less than £1040 a year (minus the administrative costs involved in a council processing regular payments of small amounts of money, and assuming other groups are found to pay for the room every week). Without making antagonistic comparisons to examples of local government spending, it’s fair to say that this sort of approach won’t do much to help to build either the Big Society or the versions of it proposed by other parties.
Angus McCabe’s Below the Radar in a Big Society paper notes that, in June 2010, a discussion paper produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government on the role of the voluntary and community sector in deprived neighbourhoods recommended that: “Developing the Big Society will be enhanced by:
4) Development work on ‘below the radar organisations’ which ensures greater visibility, connection and working with civil society organisations traditionally missed by local partnerships and programmes.
5) A re-appraisal of existing VCS (Voluntary and Community Sector) policy to ensure greater relevance and inclusion of largely unfunded groups including wider civil society organisations.”
Different Below the Radar organisations have different needs and I know from the day job that there’s plenty of smaller organisation in the mental health sector that would benefit from greater visibility and the chance to work with larger organisations to deliver projects and services.
In other cases, what Below the Radar groups really need from the public sector is benign inaction. Sustainability is the holy grail for the voluntary sector and one of the best ways that councils can help make small groups sustainable is by providing them with space and not charging them rent.
An obvious goal for the Big Society would be to tackle situations where one bit of the public sector is spending money to build the capacity of small groups to tackle a problem that another bit of the public sector has created. There’s nothing wrong with teaching people to write business plans but, in many cases, it would be far better to find ways to leave community groups alone to get on with business.