Thursday, 31 March 2011

Fred and the Big Society

Fred Smith works for a community organisation providing advocacy and “voice” for a certain community. Now Fred is well aware of how his role is political, how it challenges the established ways of providing communities with “voice” – electing local councillors for example.

Now Fred doesn’t live in the community he advocates for but in a nice little stone cottage about 20 miles away, his family are from a nice comfortable market town and have no connection to the place. But Fred is proud of his job, of the work he does every day. And especially the way he’s able to make a lot of noise about what he sees as important political issues.

Oh, I forgot, Fred’s wages are paid from a grant to the community organisation from the local council. The community doesn’t pay for Fred – except indirectly through their council taxes. Without that payment Fred doesn’t have a job. And, yes, in making savings this year Big City Council who give the grant decide to cut it by 25% - Fred’s out of a job.

Now here’s the Big Society bit. Rather than simply head off back to the cottage, Fred decides to try and find the money to keep his work going. Clutching a presentation, Fred knocks on the doors of local businesses, speaks to people in the local community, chases through a few contacts in the shiny central business district – and makes his case. Fred raises £25,000 – not a fortune but enough to carry on. More importantly there’s a collection of supporters and donors who really do care what Fred does, who want him to succeed and can be involved more.

Fred has replaced one distant council officer managing a grants budget with a larger number of private citizens, local business and others. Fred still has to struggle to get the cash but he isn’t simply standing there, ever so ‘umble, before the state looking for handouts. And because the “community” is now Fred’s paymaster, he’s even closer to them – to what they want. Fred isn’t walking a fine line between local council targets and what the community wants – he can focus exclusively on that community and is really their “voice”.

It’s not easy raising money – especially in poor places – but there are Fred’s out there, some full-time paid folk, some part-time, some volunteers. People who don’t look straight to government to provide the cash, who don’t expect anonymous taxpayers who’d rather their cash was spent on something else to pay for their activism and campaigning.

And these people like Fred – and the people who support them - are the Big Society.



Pam Nash said...

Perfectly expressed!

Emsquared said...

I do understand the grains of truth within your own ire though I do feel this scenario can be applied to councillors and members of parliament with equal validity and by the same token somewhat paints all who contribute to the voluntary sector with the same crude and slightly dismissive brush.

Simon Cooke said...


Councillors and MPs present a different problem - we are not really part of the "Big Society" because of our role (although we might be from choice). And I'm not having a go at the Freds of this world - or indeed at grant-funded voluntary organisations and charities. Just pointing out that these organisations are not necessarily either part of or enthusiasts for "Big Society"