I’m always struck when I go abroad by the lack of a good charity shop to peruse. It’s a reminder of how embedded the role of the charity and voluntary sector is in the fabric of UK society.
The UK Civil Society Almanac, an annual overview of the charity and voluntary sector in the UK, shows that in 2014/15 there were 6,710 organisations whose activities were focused on health – of which more than 50 per cent are small to medium-sized – and far more if we take into consideration those seeking to influence the wider determinants of health. In 2016 a further 1,339 new charities providing health-related support registered with the Charity Commission, so the need to identify good practice and support development in this sector is ever present.
2017 is the 20th anniversary of the GSK IMPACT Awards, a programme – run in collaboration with The King’s Fund – developed to recognise excellence among small to medium-sized charities providing support for health and wellbeing. The anniversary presents a chance both to celebrate and to reflect on the awards process, past and present winners and what we have learnt over that time. This learning is shared in our new report Modelling excellence in the charity sector.
For me one of the most striking features of the GSK IMPACT Awards is how diverse the charities that make up the winners are. Past winners include Mayfair Community Centre and HALE, both based on the Healthy Living Centre model, a community-led neighbourhood approach to health improvement. Then there are charities such as Groundswell and East Lancashire Women’s Centres – local charities targeting specific groups of people who are poorly served by existing services. And not forgetting national charities like Target Ovarian Cancer and the 2017 winner PAC-UK – which are raising awareness and working with people with specific health and support needs. Being an award winner isn’t necessarily about doing something completely new, but about implementing a successful service model, or bringing together activities in a holistic way that meets the needs of your population – and doing it really well.
Another feature that really stands out is the degree to which these charities work in partnership with other stakeholders. At its simplest this might mean charities working with other organisations to deliver activities or reach individual groups of people. But it also often means working with other stakeholders who benefit as much, if not more, than the charities themselves. A phrase I’ve heard from judges and award winners alike is that excellence is ‘going beyond just providing services’ and this really resonates. At face value, offering their skills and expertise to other stakeholders can appear altruistic but it also builds trust, respect and greater recognition of the charities’ strengths and capabilities. When we speak to external stakeholders they frequently describe the charities as ‘critical friends’, to be relied on for constructive challenge. That almost all the short films commissioned as part of the GSK IMPACT Award package include a supportive commissioner voice is recognition of this.
It’s hard not be inspired and in awe of what the award winners have achieved. These achievements are down to the hard work of passionate and committed people but, as the recent collapse of a number of high-profile charities demonstrates, that alone is not enough. As they start out, charities might be expected to take some risks, exploring fresh territory and forging new relationships, but as these charities have matured they have developed good management and governance practices not dissimilar to those you might expect to see in a public-sector organisation. Charities are only as a good as the people leading them and the best charities are those where the skills and roles of the management team and trustees have developed to meet the changing needs of the charity and its response to the changing environment in which it operates.
The GSK IMPACT Awards are unique in recognising the role of leadership and the need to provide appropriate support and development for leaders in the sector. It is not surprising therefore that, although many charities apply for the awards seeking public and financial recognition, the winners and those that continue to engage through the GSK IMPACT Award Network report the value of the training and development package and ongoing leadership support both from The King’s Fund and from their peers.
Charities make a vital contribution to society by weaving together public sector services, mobilising public support, empowering communities and reaching out to those who are least well served. In all that health and social care policy seeks to achieve, little can be done without the charity sector. But charities are not a free or infinite resource to the public sector and engaging them as strategic partners requires investment – engagement on equal terms, actively managing the constraints and opportunities presented by contracting and investing in the leadership and development of the sector. If the GSK IMPACT Award winners are anything to go by that’s a price well worth paying.