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Is the third sector in Glasgow facing a ‘boiled frog’ moment?

26 Jun 2015 | Richard Scothorne

Our recent research, commissioned by the GCPH, on the status of Glasgow’s third sector workforce revealed some stark facts. Third sector incomes are going down and demands on the sector are going up. 

We came across lots of staff who were both dedicated and distressed – they were working harder because they remained committed to their clients. They still got reward from their jobs because they felt they were making a difference, but they wondered how much longer the squeeze could go on before something gave.

Organisational leaders felt that a tightening of finances was converting collaboration into competition as organisations fought for survival. 

There appears little likelihood that these trends will reverse – or even slow down. What does this mean for the sector?

This looks horribly like a ‘boiled frog’ moment – referring to the anecdote that if a frog is placed in boiling water it will quickly jump out of the pot– but if put into cold water which is then slowly heated it will stay put until it is too late.

So, for me, one of the big questions from our work is ‘What can these organisations do to get on the front foot?’ The answer is not straightforward – not least because we didn’t see any convincing patterns in which approaches were working for those third sector organisations which had effective responses to the situation.

Approaches to the situation

As a veteran of various third sector Boards I have seen a range of responses to this question. These have included:

  • developing a stronger focus on doing a small number of roles really well – in other words, serious specialisation
  • ensuring that they can tell a persuasive story about the difference they make, directly and indirectly – through thorough evaluation and case studies – and so demonstrate the value they offer
  • developing strong alliances and partnerships around some important tasks and client groups
  • broadening the sources of income which might include social enterprise strands
  • merging with one or more organisations to reduce overheads and widen markets.

This is not easy stuff, particularly the last response. There are a lot of small organisations with strong teams, a clear focus and distinctive cultures and reputations. One of the strengths that small organisations can offer funders is that they can be fleet of foot and offer a highly personalised service to their clients.

Mergers, leadership and culture

But compared with larger organisations they are often incurring high overheads per client which in practice takes money away from clients and threatens their organisational survival. In principle, mergers look like the obvious solution. However, research suggests that, while there have been some notable successes, most mergers don’t work well – mainly because there is a fatal lack of clarity about leadership and culture.  

And actually our impression was that the larger organisations felt under just as much pressure as the smaller ones.

So, just for starters, two questions, which I suspect third sector leaders are losing sleep about:

  • If I knew that current trends were going to continue for the foreseeable future – in terms of income and demands – what could I do to safeguard the support for my clients?
  • If I had to ensure that our current clients continued to receive a high quality service (from someone) – and that we respond to increasing demands – how could I make this happen? 

….and one for the funders:

  • How can I work with my third sector partners to develop creative ways of responding to increased demands and less money – and sustain the commitment of their dedicated staff?

If this feels like a boiled frog moment to you – it may be time to jump.

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