A community organisation is calling for funding bodies to make changes to avoid yearly financial crisis. In the aftermath of Covid-19, many charities and community organisations will struggle to get back on their feet. As the world begins to slowly open again, these groups, who are now needed more than ever by beleaguered communities, are facing a familiar but heightened financial battle.
Set up almost 50 years ago, Ballynafeigh was one of the first shared, or ‘mixed’, neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland. Locals describe the centre as a “hub” in the neighbourhood, where people go for after-school programmes, health and wellbeing services, or even legal and welfare advice.
Although they are located on the Ormeau Road, the centres services stretch to neighbouring communities nearby. They service some of the top ten most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Gerry Tubritt, the Deputy Director of the Ballynafeigh Community Development Association, said the organisation has supported an estimated 6,000 participants in the last financial year.
“It’s a bit of a myth that a community organisation is restricted to work within its own community.”
Despite their widespread work in many struggling communities, accessing funding can be a big problem because of one big reason – where their home site sits. As the organisation resides in what Gerry describes as “a relatively affluent area”, they are often excluded from several funds. When they do receive funding, it’s often very little.
“It’s very difficult to keep the doors open and the light switched on because we have to go fundraising and making funding applications.”
“I have a sore back from getting all the pats on the back for what we do, but there’s no money there to sustain what we do.”
For some funding bodies, organisations are required to be in the top ten to fifteen percent most deprived wards in Northern Ireland to apply. According to NISRA statistics, Ballynafeigh is mid-range in the deprivation indicators based on their geographic location.
“Belfast is not a big place, so consequently the boundaries between communities are geographic but that doesn’t mean people don’t cross them.”
“It’s not quite as simple as saying the geographic boundary defines the area of activity that we operate in.”
Joy Sands is one of the participants who lives outside the immediate Ballynafeigh area. She has been attending classes and clubs there for around a decade, after she started using the centre’s photocopying services for work. The retired primary school teacher said she’s thankful that she came across it.
“It was the best thing I ever did. It’s fabulous! I love the place to bits. And the staff are fantastic, and the facilities are very, very good.”
“Any time I’m passing I just always have a very warm feeling about it. And it’s all gated up at the moment. It’s just so unusual because the door was usually wide open for people to come in. Just a fantastic atmosphere that was always in that place.”
Making matters worse, the funding that Ballynafeigh can secure often comes at a high cost in other areas. Every year, the organisation faces a financial and staffing crisis because of annual contract re-negotiations. Gerry said this no longer comes as a surprise to staff or participants.
“It’s a running joke in our organisation because every December, with our Christmas card that we get from our board, we get our notice that our jobs are in danger from the 31st of March, and that’s every year… And then at the end of February you get a month’s notice.”
Beyond the financial pressure of figuring out how to run the building for another year, the centre also faces a yearly staffing problem. Gerry said this often holds them back from pursuing the best possible programmes and steps for their participants.
“The problem is we have no certainty and it’s very difficult to plan really impactful programmes over three to five years when you don’t know if you’re going to have the staff, or even the organisation open at the end of the financial year.”
“You go into the next financial year with a gap in what you can deliver because you have to recruit new staff. And this means that basically, year on year you’re quite often not delivering everything that you could.”
Ballynafeigh is not alone in their struggle. This is a problem which affects the majority of community organisations across Northern Ireland. The Community Relations Council is an ‘Arm’s Length Body’ of The Executive Office. They act as a catalyst for community relations work and implement the Executive’s ‘Good Relations’ strategy. I contacted Director of Engagement, Peter Day, to ask him why community organisations continue to face this yearly financial crisis.
“It’s kind of an indicative thing. We would love to be able to give people longer term contracts because some of the points around recruiting staff, retaining staff, being able to manage a longer-term process, particularly when you’re building relationships with people, will always benefit from something that’s always long term.”
“We’ve been trying to do that, but it just comes down to the fact that budgets from the executive office are really only confirmed and committed for one-year periods. So, that is just about as much as we can do.”
“We can commit in principle to fund some things longer term, but we can’t actually confirm that we’re going to fund it for each of the three years.”
Despite having to fight to stay open, Gerry said the centre remains focused on their goals. Over lockdown they have been delivering food parcels and care packages to participants in need.
“From day one of lockdown, we have been delivering parcels, providing advice services, doing befriending services… all of which have been reaching the most vulnerable people in our community.”
“We struggle as an organisation, don’t get me wrong, but we are an organisation committed to our mission which has always been about diversity and shared space, and people living together.”
An Executive Office spokesperson said: “We recognise the valuable work being carried out by community organisations and the positive impact that work has on individuals, neighbourhoods and wider society.”
“We appreciate the issues presented by annual funding settlements and acknowledge the importance of multi-year funding to supporting longer-term planning and delivery of outcomes. We remain committed to moving to multi-annual budgets to support the collective effort that is needed as we continue to build a united and shared community.”
Amy Murray is a QUB Music Graduate and current Journalism MA student at Ulster Univeristy. She has a passion for Cultural, Social and Solutions Journalism. She represented Northern Ireland at the British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference in 2019.