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Community-made content which you can improve Case study from our community

Making the most of your back office services

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South London CVS Partnership share with us what they learnt from a project focusing on making the most of your back office services.

Background

With the change and reduction of funding for many front-line voluntary organisations, we needed to take a strategic approach to the use of our limited resources and make the most of our ‘back office’ services. 

We had run a successful three year National Lottery Community Fund project, called BESPOKE, to research and implement more efficient and effective back-office services across the six councils for voluntary service in our partnership. The lessons from this enabled us to use the opportunity provided by Transforming Local Infrastructure to fund a BESPOKE back office project officer post, developing a service tailored to the individual, specific needs of local groups, in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames. 

The staff post was designed to provide access to high quality, competitively priced back office resources, to raise awareness of the opportunities to cut ‘back office’ costs, and free up money for front-line services. It was intended that, at the end of the project, these resources and expertise be embedded within Richmond CVS’s mainstream work to support the local voluntary sector.

The project was developed and managed by South London CVS Partnership, consisting of the CVSs in the London boroughs of Bromley, Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Richmond and Sutton.

 

The issues we faced

We were aware from the outset that only a few groups (particularly long established, larger and with a high profile) would be likely to immediately identify the need to cut their back office costs. There would be a much larger number that would be harder to engage because they were not aware of how much could be saved, or felt that they didn’t have time to think about ways to save money and that we might know less about their needs.  

Out of Richmond upon Thames' 800+ groups, our service was only likely to be applicable to the much smaller number with registered offices. For those without a registered office, their only back office costs were usually stationery, insurance and printing. More detailed issues we faced included groups that:

  • felt too pressed for time to take a step back to look at their ‘back office’ costs – and might be aware that doing so could be a challenge  
  • were suspicious of having something ‘sold’ to them and assumed that we were in receipt of commission from suppliers and so not offering objective advice
  • were wary of expressing an interest in new suppliers and being bombarded with emails/sales calls
  • believed cutting ‘back office’ costs didn’t apply to them because they are so small – with perhaps one or two paid staff. 

The actions we took

Our first step was to develop a profile of the need for back office services and to raise awareness of our project.

We did a survey and used focus groups. The results were used to research and open dialogue with appropriate suppliers. 

Our next step was to undertake detailed back office audits with these groups. We found that once the conversation with a group began, this created in-depth work and investigations into other, additional services that had not originally been thought of. This included holding meetings with a range of key suppliers and relevant organisations to see whether there was scope in taking our relationship further. 

We then investigated other back office models up and down the country to see what we could learn from them, examples included Warwickshire Association for Youth Councils and GMCVO in Greater Manchester, NAVCA and NCVO. This work highlighted the fact that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to back office services, and that the needs and priorities of smaller local charities when making purchasing decisions varied considerably. We learned at this stage that if we were to offer a credible service to our local sector, we would need to pick and choose our own suppliers rather than restrict ourselves to one specific broker organisation.

We advertised our growing list of suggested suppliers on Richmond CVSs website together with relevant links and the case studies of success stories. The range of enquiries we were now receiving from groups was ever increasing as they became interested in finding alternatives to services like meetings and event venues, ICT support and independent examinations. This had a further benefit of enabling us to negotiate even further discounts with some suppliers as they began to see the potential for this work.

As the project entered its final phase, we developed and sent out a questionnaire to survey groups’ experience of our suggested suppliers.

  • The survey identified a 70% rate of ‘very satisfied’ customers.   
  • Where a service wasn’t used, it was always because a group didn’t know about it. 
  • Concerns about quality were not stated as a reason for not using a company.
  • Barriers for not using other suppliers highlighted lack of time and the perceived amount of work involved in effecting a change, as major factors.
  • The lack of awareness about changing suppliers, and the number of groups using some of the services whom we were unaware of, suggests that there is further scope for giving support to facilitate change of suppliers.

Finally, we engaged a consultant to draw on the lessons from this project and extrapolate its potential across the rest of South London, using Charity Commission Open Data available as a result of our pilot project with NCVO. This is looking likely to result in a neighbouring London borough investing some resource into this project so that their local sector can also benefit.

Positive outcomes

The project has achieved its objectives and went well in a number of ways:

  • Having an identified member of staff to promote the ‘champion’ for work on back office issues for local groups meant that the work didn’t end up being left; and it can be co-ordinated and communicated to the benefit of the local voluntary sector.
  • The project has gathered momentum as the need to make back office savings in the voluntary sector becomes ever more pressing. Groups see that others are achieving significant results and are able to spread the word through regular e-bulletins featuring success stories.
  • We identified some excellent suppliers who understood the voluntary sector, were reliable, extremely helpful to deal with, very competitive and provided high quality service.
  • The audits and customer survey highlighted the fact that groups are severely constrained by lack of time to seek out alternative and reliable suppliers
  • There is a role for an intermediary to monitor supplier performance, which doesn’t use the groups’ time or draw them into complex issues
  • Some groups have particular requirements which are costly and benefit from investigation.
  • We learned that just because another umbrella group or Charity supplier broker might recommend a preferred supplier, it didn’t necessarily mean that they are good. It is important to ‘pick and choose’ good suppliers and then build and maintain productive relations with them. This also highlighted that there is a role for local infrastructure to undertake this work and some deals and services are better brokered at this level.
  • Relations with suppliers require nurturing – and need to be built on trust to work well.
  • It has been straightforward to embed the service within RCVS, although this requires monitoring.

Negative outcomes

  • While voluntary groups are keen to cut costs, they are instinctively suspicious of being ‘sold’ products, and are fearful of becoming bombarded with emails if they sign up with a supplier.
  • Time limitations meant that with further staff, there would have been scope to undertake research into a wider range of money-services such as printing/photocopying services, at an earlier stage in the project and pass on these benefits sooner to front-line groups.

Lessons learnt

The project has raised awareness within the local voluntary organisations (and further increased awareness amongst staff and trustees of the importance of and how to cut back office costs.  We are aware of at least 267 groups who have committed to cut costs, although the true figure could be much higher.

Of the 61 Richmond groups who were audited:

  • Four organisations, (those with four offices/hostels etc), have the potential to make saving of £2,400 per annum by changing utilities suppliers alone.
  • Six organisations are predicted to make savings in telecoms of £400 per annum.
  • Eight organisations have been quoted at £3-400 less than their current insurance rate.
  • 40 groups are predicted to make savings of £200 per year on stationery – £8,000 in total.
  • Two groups have so far taken advantage of a supplier of desk-top printing. These groups are predicted to make savings of £1,500 each per annum. We believe that this service has huge potential to save money and free up staff time across the sector.

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Page last edited Oct 09, 2019

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