Fife Gingerbread Blog

The Vulnerable Sector

It’s ironic that the sector that supports the most vulnerable, is the most vulnerable sector.

As the Chief Exec of an independent charity, I’ve watched our communities change over the years, and the need for charities to mop up the impact of Welfare Reform and austerity policies has grown year on year.

If I had a thousand pounds for every business case or evidence of need paper I’ve written we would be very comfortable.  If I add in the amount of monitoring, scrutiny and justification reports I’ve written we would be cash rich. But we are not.  Instead, Fife Gingerbread is at risk of downsizing dramatically and withdrawing support to 253 families in Fife.

Fife Gingerbread supports the most vulnerable families in Fife; it’s a truly local organisation, and one that has pulled in millions of pounds in external funding and won national awards and accolades. Fife Gingerbread has changed lives of thousands of families for the better, and has an army of volunteers to prove it, with many having previously used the service. Our volunteers are the backbone of the organisation, providing a vital support to the work of the 41 support staff which all adds up to a holistic service that wraps around families and keeps them safe till they are strong enough to stand strong.

So what does Fife Gingerbread do? To quote one of our volunteers:

“Society shouldn’t judge ‘the kind of people’ who would use Fife Gingerbread. 

You never know what life has in store for you- your partner might die, your relationship could breakdown, you could be struck down with a disability, your children might have an illness, you could lose your job or your house.  All of these life changing events will make you scared and vulnerable.

 Fife Gingerbread is there to help and support you till you are strong enough to do it on your own. They are a lifeboat….a safe lifeboat that floats beside you doing practical things that matter.  When the ship hits the iceberg – they are the family’s lifeboat”

We are a lifeboat – our work consists of one to one support in the home, and we respond to what we see; and what we see is usually abject poverty. Poverty that is hidden poverty.  Houses that are not homes. No carpets, furniture, crockery, towels, bedding, food, toiletries or cleaning products.  A child pitching up at school doesn’t mean all is well. We know only too well how proud parents are and can mask the real situation because believe it or not parents genuinely  think Social Workers can just swoop n and ‘take’ their children.  They have no concept of how the system works and they are suspicious of anyone ‘official’, including teachers, hence they disengage from education.

Our volunteers have painted homes, cleaned homes, and gutted gardens. We have taken van loads to the tip and we have helped create order within hopeless situations; all the time supporting the parent to become strong skilled and capable so their children can get to the same level as their peers in life’s pecking order.

We will integrate the family into group work and holiday activity that always involves copious amounts of food. We always over cater deliberately so there is also ‘waste food’ that they have to take it away.  Our group and activities are the bedrock for all of the relationships that are built and these relationships are what will see them through the rest of their life.  Relationships – not a ‘service’ and that’s why we are a lifeboat – we keep them safe till they have others around them to keep them afloat in the future.

They’re sustainable, but we are not. We are extremely vulnerable, and if nothing is done we will drown one day. If we drown there is no lifeboat for Fife families and that will eventually create a crisis that no local authority can afford.

There is a real need to begin to review how the voluntary sector is funded. The percentage of funding from local authorities is minimal and it is always what is left after the big ticket items; education and social work. In these times of austerity within local authorities where they are struggling to respond to families in crisis, there needs to be a real shift to preventative work.  Not just words about it or wee tweaks, a radical change to funding.

I can only talk about our experience and I appreciate it’s different up and down the country but for the last few years we have bounced from crisis to crisis, speaking with every key council officer and elected members across Fife.  Everyone is sympathetic but at a loss on what to do as there are so many demands and ring fencing on too little funds. I’ve been around long enough that I remember when Voluntary Sector council funding was ring fenced and premises, utilities, phones, and photocopiers were all added benefits of the grant. Today the grant remains the same level and all of the added value has been withdrawn, sucking away the impact and ability to deliver the service.

Local authorities can make things happen if they are given guidance and support. I think it’s time the Scottish Government should do just that. Give some radical thought to how we respond to vulnerable families and place the voluntary sector at the front of that response.


Rhona Cunningham

CEO Fife Gingerbread