“Depletion of referral agencies, increase in demand and expectation, less income to deliver work”

On a day of public sector strikes, Youth Music releases research from its annual stakeholder survey which reveals the significant impact that public sector spending cuts are having on organisations working with vulnerable children and young people.

Reductions in Local Government budgets over the last few years have been keenly felt by arts and cultural organisations across the country – based on what our funded partners are telling us, Alan Davey is right to be worried. I work as the Programme Manager at the National Foundation for Youth Music.  Youth Music is a national charity dedicated to using music to transform the lives of children and young people with least opportunity.  We are a delegated Lottery distributor (supported by the Arts Council England) and each year we award grants to over 200 music-making projects.  Our portfolio of funded organisations includes registered charities (the most common type of organisation that we fund) and other third sector organisations, Companies Limited by Guarantee, various departments of Local Authorities (including music services) and schools.  In the last couple of years, we have seen an increasing number of projects halted as organisations cease to exist, or delayed due to problems with key partners (often Youth and Children’s Services Departments within Local Authorities).  In addition, we are seeing a diminishing quantity of reserves when we review organisational accounts. In common with other funders, we had also started to see a decline in the number of applications made, although this trend has started to reverse in 2014/15.

When organisations report to us on the progress of their project as part of their grant requirements, they frequently tell us that the root of any delivery issues they face can be traced back to cuts and changes in Local Authority structures.  We are currently evaluating our funding programme to ensure that it is fit-for-purpose in an ever-changing environment, so are keen to know more about the impact that Local Authority cuts are having on the work of organisations ‘on the ground’ – and therefore how we can best respond. This led us to ask the following question in our most recent stakeholder survey: ‘Please describe how, if at all, Local Authority cuts are affecting your organisation's work’.

In analysing the data we found the following:

  • that the effects are widespread, and are very rarely having a positive impact on organisations or individuals
  • the cuts are affecting staffing levels, staff morale, and quality of service delivery
  • a more competitive environment is making partnership working more difficult, with some evidence that organisations are prioritising their own survival over the needs of the communities they are serving
  • some worrying signs emerged to suggest that the poorest people and communities were being hardest hit
  • the organisations that showed least sign of being affected by the cuts were agile and flexible, adapting their business models and ways of working to suit the changing environment.

The following analysis provides more detail on the findings.


We received 165 responses to the Stakeholder Survey, of which 130 people responded to our question about Local Authority cuts.  These responses were interpreted as follows:

  • positive impact (1%)
  • neutral impact (33%)
  • negative impact (60%)
  • future impact anticipated (6%).

The issues that were reported back to us were grouped under three headings:

  • funding
  • service delivery and partnerships
  • staffing.

There was most discussion about funding (n = 60); followed by service delivery and partnerships (n = 55), then staffing (n = 28). One respondent succinctly summarised the impact as “depletion of referral agencies, increase in demand and expectation on the organisation, less income to deliver work.”


The majority of references to funding (n=54), focussed on the reduced amount of funding available, either directly (through grants or commissioned work) or indirectly (match or in-kind donations from partner organisations). “Cuts in local authority have meant that community groups that were able to offer in kind support in terms of venue hire, support worker costs, etc. previously, are no longer able to do so.”

Organisations reported that they have seen a reduction in core funding and that remaining opportunities came with increasing “value for money” expectations of them to do more for less, “a keen focus on what is being delivered and at what cost”.  Alongside an expectation to provide services at an extremely low cost, there appeared to be a growing culture of monitoring outputs (over outcomes), with several respondents providing examples of either burdensome reporting requirements or a focus on numbers: “an example is that xxx Council currently fund us with £2,000 per annum. We have assessed the monitoring required by this authority and it amounts to 25% in staff time to complete - therefore reducing the 'actual' grant available for activity work to £1,500!”

Elsewhere, there was evidence that the need to ‘streamline’ is affecting the morale of staff. “I work about 8 more hours a week this year than I did two years ago and still cannot keep up with the demands”, “staff morale is also low”.

There were several instances in the feedback provided that indicated that the quality of provision was being affected by the need to keep costs low. “One of the main hurdles we are facing is the reluctance to fund staff time or proportional core costs although our overheads are extremely low. There is an expectation to have service delivery completely run by volunteers, however, on a practical basis, there is a strong need to continue funding project management costs as that includes pastoral care and operational needs of the projects as well’, “with specific reference to our youth music work, it is unlikely we will be able to maintain our professional musician input following funding cuts next year”.

Several projects mentioned how increased workloads and streamlining meant that training for staff had become increasingly difficult to access: “training is very low on the agenda”, “staffing cuts mean we often cannot access events or training because we can't afford cover”. This pattern reflects the findings from Youth Music’s Impact Report from 2012/13, which saw a decline in musicians accessing continuing professional development activities between 2011/12 and 2012/13 (from 82% to 72%). If this pattern continues then it paints a worrying picture about the ability of organisations to maintain their quality of provision, as well as respond to an ever-changing external environment. A reduction in the take-up of training and staff funding also poses potential longer-term risks around a de-professionalisation of the music leading workforce at a time when quality remains high on the agenda and a bespoke music educator qualification has only recently been developed.

Partnership working?

Another main impact of funding cuts reported by the respondents related to increased competition for remaining funds - both in terms of organisations being less successful in their grant applications (and therefore having to dedicate more time to fundraising) and also in relation to their ability to work in partnership with other organisations: “Other voluntary organisations have become leaner and meaner, they don't help each other”, “I work in partnership with [Local Authorities], and they cannot raise the 10% match funding for Youth Music [applications], so I can no longer make applications in partnership with them”.

Several stakeholders reported how uncertainty (in relation to staff roles or partner input) made it more difficult both to manage existing projects and plan new ones. In total, 55 respondents described how the cuts had affected their service delivery, with only one describing a positive impact. Where organisations had not been directly affected by cuts, 30 examples were provided whereby partner organisations had been affected, usually leading to a knock-on effect within their own organisation or project: “There have been times when projects have been halted, or not got off the ground because the individuals we have been working with have been made redundant, or services have been cut”.

Partnership working is a crucial element for success in most Youth Music projects, as many of our projects work with very vulnerable children and young people. Lots of people described having to make changes to recruitment and referral practices as a result of cuts to (predominantly) Youth Services: “we have to constantly advertise our workshops to make sure that young people know what is available for them - previously this was done more in youth settings that are no longer available”, “reduced youth work budgets in the area have seen more young people come to us on evenings. There has also been a slight increase in local funding opportunities for voluntary sector organisations. However, there is less youth work infrastructure to work in partnership - so, for example, recruitment through youth clubs and signposting young people has been adversely affected”.

As well as affecting the ability of organisations to reach and engage young people, there was some evidence to indicate that cuts were having a direct impact on young people’s wellbeing, due to a reduction in their support services: “Local authority cuts have greatly diminished the social services our members can access and have in many cases reduced, or eliminated, the social safety net on which our members rely”, “The young people we see have less support and a harder time accessing benefits”.  As we might expect, there was also several mentions of increased demand for the services on offer.

Survival of the fittest

Where positive or neutral comments were made in relation to the impact of Local Authority cuts on organisations, these could mostly be traced back to the ability of organisations to continue to provide services through changes to their business models or ways of working: “Less and less commissioned work but more opportunity to partner with LAs who want to apply for funding to do work they previously would have supported. This has actually nurtured better, more strategic partnerships”, “Can be difficult to get any time with managers, particularly in the hub as they are so hard pressed, BUT where we provide a service that works, on a flexible pay as you go basis, the demand has proved substantial”, “The balance of our funding has shifted dramatically over the last few years from mainly LA funding to a really rich mix of trusts and foundations, grants and individuals”, “We are looking at innovative ways to ensure our work continues so building relations with the private sector has been key.  Rather than relying on state funding, we are driving our youth movement forward through different funding streams and incorporating income generation / sponsorship and fundraising”.

The hardest hit

There is a growing evidence base that suggests that some of the poorest Local Authority areas have been hardest hit by the cuts.  This was corroborated by some of the feedback we received, with one respondent explaining that “the loss of arts officers in some places have made it harder to maintain our partnership approach in under-served areas”, and another suggesting that they had seen reduced participation in their projects working with vulnerable adults due to a decrease in Social Services budgets: “we support people with learning difficulties in a variety of projects. People receive funding from social services through direct payments to cover support costs. Cuts to social services have therefore had an impact on our work in that there have been a reduction in referrals to some of our projects”.


When analysing the data, it was interesting to note the strength of the language used by respondents to signify the severity of the impact, including words such as “considerably”, “hugely”, “drastically”, “severe impact”, “major impact”, “crisis point”.  The word “massively” was used seven times.  This paints a worrying picture when we consider that there are more reductions to come, with 91% of (remaining) Local Authority arts services predicting cuts in the next two years.

So what does all of this mean for funders, and the organisations they are supporting?  A key priority for us is that we stay informed of issues in the external environment by listening to feedback from the organisations we are funding, and keeping abreast of emerging trends and issues.  I have already written about our approach to the use of data to inform our regional funding allocations – this approach becomes even more important when we consider that it is often the most underserved and poorest areas of the country that have been hardest hit.

It is clear that both people and organisations need to develop the skills to be resilient and adaptable in an ever-changing environment.  Youth Music encourages organisations to include professional development opportunities in all its projects, yet take-up appears to be on the decline, as it is becoming more difficult to release staff.  In our experience it is rare for Chief Executives and Directors to undertake focussed professional development (and perhaps even rarer for Trustees to do so).  If organisations are to survive (and indeed flourish) in today’s climate, then this needs to change.  Funders need to explicitly support personal and organisational development and organisations need to ensure it is prioritised.

If there is less core funding to be had from Local Authorities - and if, as one respondent put it, “currently most available funding is project-based” - then organisations need to ensure that they have a sophisticated and accurate methodology for supporting full cost recovery.  Based on many of the budgets we review, lots of organisations have some way to go in order to achieve this.  If full cost recovery is properly calculated then projects might appear more expensive to deliver: this is something that funders need to accept in making any ‘value for money’ assessments.

And what of partnership working?  If the favourite topic of funders over the last few years has been outcomes and impact, then the second favourite term has probably been ‘partnership’. But in pragmatic terms, should we continue to encourage partnership working when the environment is becoming more dog eat dog?  As one respondent put it, organisations are “prioritising their own existence and needs above and beyond their ability to be strategic”. On the other hand, the significant changes we are seeing and the erosion of support services for the children and young people we are serving means that partnership working seems now more important than ever – organisations can’t do everything themselves.  But, perhaps the terms on which partnerships exist need to change, or be re-negotiated.  Organisations need to have skilled leaders in order to negotiate these terms.

As a funder of organisations, it can be easy to lose sight of the people that you are there to serve: in our case the children and young people whose lives can be enriched by participating in creative music-making.  This was reflected in a funder discussion at the last Association of Charitable Foundations conference, where organisations were discussing their strategies for funding in difficult times. These strategies ranged from providing smaller grants to more organisations (spreading their investments over a wider area), to providing more money to the strongest performers (backing those most likely to survive), to giving more funding to particularly vulnerable organisations to help them weather the storm.  While funders do have a duty of care for the organisations we fund, in designing and refining our programmes we must keep the beneficiaries’ (in our case, children and young people) needs at the heart of our criteria and decision-making process, particularly as indications are that it is the most vulnerable in society that are being the hardest-hit.

Do our findings reflect your experience?

This analysis has focussed on the impact of Local Government cuts on organisations providing music-making opportunities for children and young people.  Do the findings chime with your own experiences?  What has been the impact of the cuts on the organisations you work with, and – perhaps more importantly – the people you support?  Please post your comments below.

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anita holford's picture

Important research, thanks for sharing on the group Carol. Interested to hear projects responses and also wanted to add a couple of questions myself:

Costing - I'd like to hear about any projects who have changed their approach to costing and communicating costings, particularly around full cost recovery - and also if there are any trainers or projects out there who would be willing to support other organisations in CPD around this area?

Partnerships - what's been the key to managing relationships and maintaining good partnerships as funding pressures have increased. How have you developed these leadership skills, and how do you continue to learn/develop them? Is there enough support for those of you responsible for partnership working and negotiations? If not, what sort of support would help?

Julie Wright's picture

Carol, your blog makes dismal reading at the end of a year filled with amazing music projects, bringing education, hope, joy, fun and therapy to children, young people, their families, friends and carers in a range of settings across the East Midlands in my work with the musical inclusion development team for Northampton Music Hub.

Pete Moser produced an extremely useful World Cup music resource, which was really good fun at this end of term for my students, for which I thank him!
It occurs to me that with all the money rolling around in the football arena, perhaps we're looking in the wrong place for financial support for our work . . . sportswomen and men at all levels can be found doing great work for charity. Perhaps it's time to look to where the money currently appears to be for funding, not where it used to be ...