LAPG: Adding value to invaluable services

What does it take to keep an advice service running? The answer to this seemingly simple question is probably more complicated now than it has ever been. And is ‘running’ good enough to meet the needs of our complex and diverse clients?

Social welfare advice services, and in particular those run by not-for-profits, now have to deliver on multiple fronts to remain viable, and all on a shoe-string budget. Along with being experts in their field(s) of law they have to master local politics, fundraising, social media, the effective use of technology, engaging their local communities, partnership work across different sectors, multi-disciplinary service delivery, human resources, managing premises, maximising the potential of volunteers, ensuring sound governance, compliance and regulation, media relations (the list goes on…).

So how do leaders in NfP advice organisations manage these numerous yet non-negotiable demands when funding tends to focus almost exclusively on the cost of delivering front-line services? In many cases, they don’t. And given the lack of resources this is hardly surprising. But ultimately, failing to deliver on all fronts means that services, and therefore clients, suffer.

Across the NfP sector there is no shortage of talent and commitment, despite the chronic under-investment in the sector. Agencies across the country are developing and running interesting, novel projects and delivering effective services. They are restructuring, merging, expanding and diversifying. They are working directly with universities, domestic violence charities, social workers, schools and health providers to deliver holistic services in an effort to get to the root causes of poverty and social exclusion.

They are attracting European funding, support from the City, contracts from education and health commissioners and private donations in an effort to develop creative solutions and reduce their reliance on public funds. But, despite the extraordinary efforts of staff, trustees and volunteers across the sector, services cannot meet demand.

So, in an era when so much is expected of NfPs, it is vital that they have access to the training, support and resources required to transform their services, develop a sound business model and seize on opportunities. In 2011, the Future Advice Fund was established to ensure NfPs could do just that. The programme was established by a number of funders (Baring Foundation, Comic Relief, Unbound Philanthropy Foundation, the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund (now closed) and, since 2014, The Legal Education Foundation) which shared concerns about the impact of legal aid and local authority funding cuts on NfP advice providers. The programme provided grants to help frontline legal advice providers to develop and implement ideas for restructuring and organisational development, with the overall aim of putting advice organisations on a more sustainable footing. Grants were also provided to infrastructure bodies to ensure that frontline providers could access support.

Funded projects generated tools, resources and lessons on the future sustainability of advice services, many of which are of benefit to the wider legal advice sector. Projects also focussed on strategic and influencing work to bring about a more supportive policy and funding environment for advice. The programme has now closed for new applications and the funders are conducting an evaluation process. It is clear that the Future Advice Fund has generated a wealth of good practice and practical, implementable tools and resources. The funders have therefore commissioned Legal Aid Practitioners Group to maximise the potential of these resources.

LAPG is pulling together the resources and learning developed by the Future Advice projects and will make them available to NfP providers by:

  • Creating an online knowledge base of accessible tools and guides
  • Running a series of workshops to introduce innovative ideas and labs to help organisations create practical implementation plans; and
  • Providing discounted consultancy support to help organisations imbed new ideas as most NfPs don’t have media, IT, business development and HR departments.

LAPG will also be pooling resources and tools developed by Advice Services Transition Fund projects and independent research, building on the excellent work of groups such as the Advice Services Alliance and London Legal Support Trust.

The first workshop focusses on new ways of generating funding and takes place in London on the 15th of July (with many thanks to Herbert Smiths Freehills for their support) and is open to all NfP advice organisations. Details and booking arrangements can be found here. LAPG will soon release a full workshop programme covering issues such as making the most effective use of resources, diversifying income, organisational development, making strategic use of the law, building a strong business case for advice and advocating and campaigning for advice.

As well as running these stand alone Innovation workshops, LAPG is also incorporating this best practice into the NfP modules of their Certificate in Practice Management course, which is designed to help busy legal aid lawyers develop better business and management skills.

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