Voluntary sector suffers ‘collateral damage’ in push for David Cameron's Big Society

Funding to established charities with strong track records has dropped, while money was poured into failed Big Society Network projects

Voluntary sector groups have become “collateral damage” in the push to funnel funds and projects to David Cameron’s flagship Big Society Network, a leading charity executive said yesterday.

Andy Thornton, a former government adviser and chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, said funding to established charities with strong track records had dropped significantly while money was poured into failed Big Society Network projects.

The Independent revealed this weekend that the Big Society Network, which was launched by the Prime Minister in 2010 to help put his manifesto pledge to increase civic participation into action, is being investigated by the Charity Commission over allegations it misused public funds and has been wound up.

Labour said it was writing to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood asking him to investigate whether political pressure played a role in the charity receiving grants from several Whitehall departments and agencies despite concerns at its lack of experience and the viability of some of its projects. Mr Thornton said that many in the civic engagement sector were angry at the focus on the Big Society Network and its marketing-oriented approach, which he said had conspicuously failed while other charities’ schemes had gone unfunded.

He said that his own organisation, which works with schools to promote young people’s engagement with politics and society, had been passed up for funding of projects despite its success in similar or identical areas and its income had fallen from £2.1m to £1.4m between 2009 and 2013.

“Many in the voluntary sector are strongly disillusioned with the Big Society and what it has provided. There was an understanding that if we kept faith with the Government, the Government would hold faith with us and that hasn’t happened,” he said.

“The money poured into the Big Society Network has gone to marketers and programmers with the idea that if you build the brand big enough and launch a website or build a social media presence it will work. The reality is it doesn’t break through into the areas of great need.”

Mr Thornton added: “If your face didn’t fit within this small group, then your track record has not counted for much. Many important and successful organisations in the voluntary sector have become the collateral damage of this.”

Research by The Independent revealed that there has been a stark contrast between Big Society Network projects funded with lottery money or by the Government and the forecast or actual results.

One project – Your Square Mile, designed to encourage people to improve their community – received £830,000 from the Big Lottery Fund after it was predicted it would attract up to one million voluntary groups. By February 2012, just 64 had signed up.

Mr Thornton said that while many charities were coping with downsizing as a result of the recession, funds earmarked for Big Society priorities were being offered direct to some organisations and substantial backing from the private sector remained elusive.

The Big Lottery Fund, which distributes 40 per cent of money raised by the National Lottery, said nearly nine out of 10 of its grants were for £10,000 or less and just five awards out of 12,000 last year were made as a result of a "solicited" bid process.

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