Strong ties and sharp focus: How the voluntary and charitable sector in Kensington & Chelsea enhances our civic life

Cllr Sof McVeigh

Councillor for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

World-famous high streets, parks and cultural institutions make Kensington and Chelsea a unique corner of London. Less known, but no less important, is the thriving voluntary and charitable sector that enhances our civic life. Local people are experts in the areas where they live and our borough’s voluntary organisations put that specialist understanding at the heart of supporting those in need in our community.

As a council, we work closely with charities and rely on them to help deliver many services and improve our work based on the views of residents they engage with. In my role as Lead Member for Communities, strengthening this connection is a major focus, because these strong ties are essential to improving the lives of local residents. The importance of our partnerships was brought into sharp focus following the Grenfell tragedy and we have listened to feedback about how to build on them. Personally, I became a councillor after the Grenfell fire due, in part, to my volunteering at a local charity during the relief effort which followed the fire.

Not-for-profit grassroots organisations have been at the heart of our community-led recovery from the Grenfell fire. For example, we have used participatory budgeting to shift power from council officers to empower residents. Over the last three years, we have provided grants to community initiatives based on decisions made by residents through a scheme called the Grenfell Projects Fund. The first round began before the pandemic – with 58 projects sharing £700,000. However, Covid forced us to adapt our approach in early 2022. We moved from in-person events to video presentations via an online platform. Fortunately, this switch increased participation – with 1,400 people voting to allocate over £1.2 million to 40 projects. Beneficiaries cover a huge range of activities, from art therapy, to sport and maths, and include WAND UK, which helps girls build self-confidence and independence through after school group sessions and mentoring.

Following a review of our wider funding processes, we recently established a new programme called the Voluntary Sector Support Fund (VSSF). Previously, grant recipients had told us that they wanted clearer strategic objectives, better reporting and improved alignment with other council funding. In response, the programme now provides core funding, which enables operational viability for the charities, so some can deliver council statutory services and others can apply for funding for specific projects from external grant-makers. Our aim is to reduce the administrative burden on voluntary organisations by trying to harmonise the paperwork that different council departments require for procurement and compliance. This will give charities more time to do what they do best – getting out from behind the desk to reach residents in need.

I am pleased that the latest reporting shows grantees are delivering more community activities to increased numbers of residents – with roughly one in every eight residents across our borough now benefiting from the VSSF programme. Fund recipients are also attracting rising numbers of volunteers and securing even more successful applications to other funders, which is a key aim of the scheme. Just as the council faces challenges, we know that charities are facing hurdles of their own, with the rising cost of living amid economic upheaval nationally. The need is increasing while public funds are being squeezed.

With this in mind, we are always looking to further our links with businesses and grant-makers so we can help our charities have a greater reach. We have an active Funders Forum that is essential, and our networking events are proving to be very popular. We also offer funding masterclasses that help small organisations to fill in grant forms and apply to a diverse range of sources, though the burden of legal and financial paperwork remains heavy on small charities. All of these programmes rely on specialised knowledge, so please do get in touch if you think you can help, or would like to get involved in any way.

Since establishing the new approach to making grants, we have also introduced a successful performance management framework and monitoring regime. This allows for improved record-keeping and better analysis of outcomes in a systematic way. Building on this progress, the next year will see further steps taken to ensure close alignment between our grant-making and our upcoming Council Plan, due to launch in early 2023.

To create a new Council Plan, we are engaging with as many people as possible throughout Kensington and Chelsea to listen to ideas and feedback as to how we can be the best council for our residents and for all who work and visit here. We want to preserve and enhance our neighbourhoods, with access to good housing, welcoming spaces, a vibrant economy and high-quality education. Every element of this vision has the voluntary sector at its heart, underpinned by strong and engaged communities.

I look forward to continuing to build on our ties with the third sector and to welcoming a wide variety of new ways of working to achieve this.