Playing the Sustainability Game

During the last few weeks, every part of my brain has been occupied by thoughts on funding for the coming financial year – will budgets be cut, what will that mean for our older members, volunteers and staff?   Don’t get me wrong, I think about funding pretty much all year round, but this time of year shines a big glaring spotlight on how precarious things can be for Charities with public sector funding. The ‘sustainability’ word rears its head in every conversation and in every report, everyone asking how we are going to be more sustainable, without saying the real truth ‘there is less grant money for your Charity but we’d like you to have the same impact’. It got me thinking about what it means to be both Charity and Social Enterprise and who gets to decide where the balance lies between earned income and traditional grant funding, and what does sustainability really mean for us today.

In the dictionary, the word sustainable means: able to be upheld or defended (in the educational sense) and able to be maintained at a certain rate or level (in the economic sense).   If you apply the definition, Food Train is entirely sustainable. With the right balance of both human, physical and financial resource we can be upheld and maintained at a certain rate, providing help to older people who need us for however long they need us. A good thing surely? From our members' perspective, knowing that someone is guaranteed to come every week and bring you fresh food so you can eat and survive, is pretty critical.   It sounds like it should be easy to keep the right balance of all the things we need to be sustainable? If only it were. In my view, the key to sustainability is good planning; knowing exactly what your organisation does, for whom and how much it costs. But knowing what you need and achieving it are two very different things. The current culture of short term annual public funding gives Charities a very short window each year in which to improve their sustainability. We have one funding decision due 4 days before the new financial year starts, we’ve just been asked if we could manage a 25% cut in one budget and still provide the same level of service, and one funding cut of 13% has already come this month – this means we have 5 weeks to become more sustainable.

The rules of the sustainability game don’t seem very fair. The Scottish Government has in place a 2030 Programme on Social Care for Older People[1], identifying things that need to happen for good quality sustainable social care. They’ve given themselves 11 years to work on this, and rightly so. Big things need to change; structures, attitudes and money are just a few mentioned, so of course it will take time for that to happen.   Yet in 5 short weeks we must balance the sustainability scales to maintain quality support to people who need us now, today and tomorrow, not 11 years into the future.

Putting in place well planned initiatives to make you more sustainable takes time, energy, skills and good people, and the return may be small in the short term but good in the longer term if you can stay the course. But instead, for the next 5 weeks we’ll put the sustainability game to one side and, like many other charities, play a different game, the ‘how to survive another year game’. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that our great staff don’t despair and find other jobs and hopefully come the summer months we can bring the sustainability game back out and have another shot.

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Sunday, 15 September 2019

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