Under pressure - Dilys PriceFinancial pressures are mounting for many charities working with people with learning disabilities, which is threatening services, but they are finding new ways to keep going. Andrew Mourant reports

It took years of dedicated effort to coax Naomi Perkins, a severely autistic 26-year-old, out of her shell.

When she first came to sessions run by Cardiff-based charity Touch Trust, Naomi would curl up and try to hide away. Now she responds with pleasure to touch, massage and music; and those closest to her say her life has been transformed.

Dilys Price, Touch Trust’s founder, wanted Cardiff City councillors to witness this work in action before it began making hard decisions on budget cuts. She also wanted them to see other work the charity does, such as hands-on therapeutic programmes that cater for the principality’s most disabled people. But, despite her invitation, they never turned up. Instead they axed Touch Trust’s £15,000 grant. It’s one of 14 voluntary organisations in the city to lose all its council money in the past year.

Price and her team are still digesting the implications. “We’ll have to work harder – we’ll survive somehow,” she says.

One financial headache is the £30,000 annual rent it pays for purpose-built premises at the landmark Millennium Centre building in Cardiff Bay. Remaining at the Centre, the charity’s home for 10 years, is an article of faith; as is accommodating anyone who can’t afford the £16 cost of joining a group session, or £30 for a one-to-one.

Touch Trust

Touch Trust caters for about 150 people a week who have disabilities such as autism. It’s fun for them and offers respite to their families. “Because we work with the most disabled – those not catered for elsewhere, and who were isolated and anxious – we turn no one away for lack of funds or any other reason,” says Price.

“Losing a grant means we’ll have to fundraise for rent, and not for bursaries to support them.”

The charity’s roots lie in her background as a dance and movement lecturer at what is now Cardiff Metropolitan University. Price was also part of a team that founded the Wales Sports Centre for the Disabled. After retiring, she continued working with disabled adults and children; and in 1997 developed plans to create “a beautiful place” where Touch Trust programmes could be provided and people trained.

At one time, Price ran sessions in “old, cold gyms and community centres … always second best.” But now, working out of the Millennium Centre, a building both grand and welcoming, lifts the spirits of everyone involved. “We feel part of the community – it’s like an ideal society,” she says.

Moreover it is home to the Welsh National Opera (WNO), with which Touch Trust has long enjoyed a close working relationship – Naomi is among those who have worked with the WNO, exploring the sounds she can make with her voice. Touch Trust is determined to maintain that connection.

Working harder for Price, 81, will, among other things, entail sky-diving. She’s leapt out of aeroplanes on a fundraising mission more than 1,100 times – “I love it but get scared.”
Not everyone has her nerve, yet the need for charities to be bold or ingenious about replacing lost grants has never been greater.

Soft targets

In March, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) wrote to all 326 local authorities in England exhorting them not to regard charities as a “soft target”. It reminded them to “act with fairness” when agreeing budgets; if not, they could risk breaching statutory guidance and be “vulnerable to legal challenge by way of judicial review.”

The letter followed a report produced in December 2012 by Compact Voice, the voice of the voluntary sector on the Compact, an agreement between the sector and the Government to ensure better working together, that found 56% of local authorities are cutting grants to the voluntary sector – 51% “disproportionately” when compared reductions in their own budgets.

However, its figures, based on Freedom of Information Act requests, revealed 35% had increased grant funding to local charities and community groups. Neil Cleevely, director of policy at the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA), says this proves that excessive cuts “can be avoided if there is a political will.”

In February, NAVCA’s own survey reported that 79% of members feared their own finances would worsen over the next 12 months.

But while such statistics convey some idea of what charities are up against, it’s hard to get a complete picture. “All the information we have is that which charities send us in their annual figures and accounts – we don’t hold information about their financial problems,” says a Charity Commission spokeswoman.

“In the past we did surveys to get a sense of how they saw the next six months. But we stopped doing it in 2011. However, the average income of charities isn’t going down. Nor is there a decline in charities applying to be registered, though we recognise that doesn’t tell the full picture – charities facing financial hardship, closure or merger.”

After the Government’s comprehensive spending review in 2010 announced public spending cuts up to 2015–16, NCVO projected that voluntary sector income from central and local government would fall by 9.4% and that around £3.3 billion would be lost.

It reported that a survey in London estimated 51% of charitable and voluntary organisations had had either to close or reduce service levels. Another survey in northeast England indicated that 62% had seen a funding decrease.

There’s been little let-up in the squeeze. “We’re planning to look at this again fairly soon,” says an NCVO spokesman.

Endangering services

While every charity might plead a case for its uniqueness, Touch Trust appears to have a strong case. However, if it hopes to extract any money from Cardiff City Council, it must now join others in bidding for part of a charitable pot amounting to just £50,000. That means taking the time and trouble to prepare a bid with no guarantee of success, a burden any charity could do without.

Julie Prosser, whose 23-year-old daughter Tamara has cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, believes that axing the council grant to Touch Trust means not just cutting provision for people with profound multiple disabilities (PMD) but “endangering the service totally”. “They [Cardiff Council] may be responsible for taking away the only place that people like my daughter can go,” she says.

“All they ever face is cutbacks. They’re not being allowed to grow and enjoy life fully – they’re regressing. The Millennium Centre offers a unique opportunity for people with PMD to appreciate that life can be enjoyed, and that they can do more.”

Prosser says she has endured “a nine-year battle” with colleges, councils, social services and the Welsh Assembly to find a suitable place for Tamara. One college head told her such provision is “the first to be cut, as they [people with severe disabilities] … need the most money.”

The college to which she did finally send her daughter “had no idea how to meet her needs”.

Touch Trust’s biggest grant – £150,000 – comes from the Arts Council for Wales. It has about 20 part-time staff running therapy sessions and seven office workers.

However, the charity generates more than half its annual income of about £500,000 from session fees, workshops, training and its licensed programme, Provider Membership. This has attracted international interest from as far afield as New York, Hong Kong and India.

“We licence the programme for three years, retaining the copyright,” says Price. “Schools pay £600–£1,000, becoming provider members – we run sessions there and they come to us. They stay with us because of the distinctive work we do.”

Regardless of financial constraints, Touch Trust still has ambitious plans, notably extending its work to people with dementia. So expect Price to take to the skies again soon. She’s uncertain about how much she’s raised this way over the years – probably about £25,000–£30,000. “I’m not very good with money,” she says. “But I daren’t give it up.”

Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist

This feature first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Learning Disability Today.