I write this blog as this year’s curators The Centre for Justice Innovation prepare to launch the book answering the question “How can we be a less violent society?” An answer I’d offer to this question is “by allowing voluntary organisations, especially those which are community based and specialist in focus to flourish”.
I say this reflecting on three things:
- Evidence from US research
- Clinks’ belief in sector
- What we know about state of the sector and its challenges
In the United States of America Sharkey et al published research in 2017 that showed, tracking crime rates over a 20 year period, a positive correlation between the development and presence of non-profit organisations in local communities and the reduction in their violent crime rates.
The research points to the positive influence of informal social control in local communities where supportive organisations focussed on the wellbeing and safety of people in that community are present. “Drawing on a panel of 264 cities spanning more than 20 years, we estimate that every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9 percent reduction in the murder rate, a 6 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4 percent reduction in the property crime rate”. 
This is something we’ve an instinctive belief in at Clinks because we understand, usually from qualitative sources of evidence, the impact that charities and social enterprises have on the lives of the people they support and the communities in which they live. The criminal justice system disproportionately impacts the lives of people in poorer communities and people protected under the Equalities Act (2010). This is true both for victims of crime and those who find themselves on the other side of the dock. Organisations in the sector are often of and for these communities of place or interest. As such they have specialist understanding of their communities’ needs and appropriate responses to them. For example, 25% support women, 24% support young adults and 16% work to meet the needs of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people.
Starkey’s research reinforces our belief that given the freedom and flexibility to design and deliver responses to need as they see fit these organisations can achieve remarkable outcomes that lead to inspirational change. But it brings into sharp relief some of the challenges facing the sector at this time because the very things that they need to do to support their communities and the people in them are under threat, primarily due to lack of funding.
We’ve published our latest State of the sector research. In our analysis we’ve found a continuing pattern of the smallest and more specialist organisations facing real uncertainty. This throws into question their future ability to survive and thrive and provide the support that’s needed in their communities.
The English and Welsh voluntary sector is predominantly locally based with 47% of organisations delivering their services locally, compared to 35% regionally and 35% nationally.
English and Welsh criminal justice voluntary sector organisations are smaller than those in the wider voluntary sector. 25% of specialist criminal justice organisations have an income of less than £100k, compared to 12% of non-specialist criminal justice organisations; whilst 26% of specialist criminal justice organisations have an income of more than £1m, compared to 35% non-specialist criminal justice organisations.
Sources of funding are also important and impact on what organisations can do and how they work. Voluntary income, including grants, is essential for small, specialist criminal justice organisations to respond flexibly and innovatively to local need.
Our work shows that the smaller the organisation, the more likely they are to rely on voluntary income such as from charitable trusts and foundations, than from the government. In 2015/16 specialist criminal justice organisations with an income of between 100k and 500k received 33% of their income from voluntary sources such as Trusts and Foundations and and 23% from government; whilst those with an income between £1m and £10m received 12% of their income from the voluntary sector and 60% from the government. This income tends to take the form of grants rather than contracts, with specialist criminal justice organisations receiving 67% of their total income in the form of grants…
We believe that grants are good. They allow organisations to be flexible and responsive. Whereas contracts for services are often prescribed by commissioners rather than developed by organisations who have the intelligence and expertise to identify, understand and address needs in their communities.
So, what are the implications? What trends require concerted effort to reverse if we’re to ensure that the needs of communities in England and Wales are well met, which may in turn lead to the same reductions in crime, seen in Sharkey et al’s research?
We need to allow and enable communities of place and interest to mobilise and support the formation, development and sustainability of not for profit organisations responding to communities’ needs – the US experience points to the importance of organisations forming following the mobilisation of local people concerned about their community in the face of rising crime and violence. Action of this kind creates empowered and autonomous communities which in turn leads to the social capital that is most likely to produce the positive influence of informal social control that is described in the research.
We need to understand that real change takes time – funding and support of one to three years for projects and initiatives will go some way towards supporting local organisations but transformative longer-term change and building the trust needed to achieve it will need longer term investment.
We need a radically different approach to ensuring that BAME led organisations, possibly the most vulnerable part of our sector at this time, can lead responses to need within BAME communities. Clinks research has shown that, despite sustained and ongoing over representation of, and poorer outcomes for, BAME people at every stage of the criminal justice system, BAME led organisations are more likely to be at risk of closure than other organisations in the criminal justice system. Alongside this, BAME people, especially young BAME people, are also more likely to be victims of crime including violent crime. These issues merit a community response from a well-funded and autonomous BAME led sector able to advocate for and put resource into ways of building trusted relationships with and services for young people. Yet while the vulnerability of this part of the voluntary sector has been recognised by infrastructure organisations, funders and policy makers it’s this type of organisation that we consistently see missing out on funding because they can’t fit the criteria for funding and commissioning precisely because they’re small and specialist. We need concerted action that sees funders handing back power to these communities, supporting and resourcing them to define their own needs and solutions in order to develop an autonomous and sustainable BAME led sector.
Overall we need to invest in grassroots solutions, developed and owned by the communities they seek to serve.
 Sharkey, J (et al) “Community and the Crime Decline: The Causal Effect of Local Nonprofits on Violent Crime” in American Sociological Review 2017, Vol. 82(6) 1214–1240