Supporting small advice organisations working with London's ethnically diverse communities

What you need to know:

The key challenges identified for advice services working with diverse communities in London include:

  • practical matters relating to managing demand from communities hit hardest by the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19;
  • the difficulties of providing advice through digital media and by telephone;
  • lack of opportunity to tap into support networks;
  • a need for greater capacity to develop staff to match advice need and/or funder requirements.

This report from Advice Services Alliance (ASA), funded by Trust for London and supported by the London Legal Support Trust, examines the position of advice services working with diverse communities in London in early 2021. Through a survey of advice organisations and a series of interviews with practitioners from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds, it provides a snapshot of the challenges facing such services as we move into the post-COVID-19 world.

Key findings

The key challenges include:

  • practical matters relating to managing demand from communities hit hardest by the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19;
  • the difficulties of providing advice through digital media and by telephone;
  • lack of opportunity to tap into support networks;
  • a need for greater capacity to develop staff to match advice need and/or funder requirements.

The report indicates that the gap in resources between mainstream advice organisations and those working with diverse communities has widened. Over three-quarters of organisations targeting diverse communities in our survey had an annual turnover of less than £300,000, compared to less than one- third of mainstream organisations. These challenges compound, serving to further widen the gap.

The fundamental questions raised by this research regard ongoing sustainability. These are linked closely to a lack of long-term funding opportunities. The main challenges identified in relation to workforce development were difficulties with digital skills training, developing areas of specialist knowledge on a range of advice and policy issues, recruiting skilled staff and improving team working across organisations.

Within this context, advice services working with diverse communities have minimal capacity to engage in strategic planning and fundraising, let alone participate in platforms that would enable them to influence policy or to share best practice. There was support for more networking opportunities providing it is democratically run, well-funded and is useful by filling the gaps identified by the organisations themselves.

Respondents felt strongly that the skills, abilities and knowledge they brought to the sector were undervalued and their work was rarely judged on its own terms. The work undertaken is often very complex, requiring good language skills and understanding of cultural issues. Quality assurance and standards assessment do not measure such criteria, and the lack of a recognised standard can marginalise organisations from funding opportunities and networks.

Key recommendations

For the advice sector

  • All advice organisations should reassess their relationship to groups working with diverse communities, recognising the critical role the latter play in providing access to justice for people facing the greatest impacts from austerity and Covid-19. Relationships must extend beyond ‘sub-contractor’ or ‘trusted intermediary’ to one of mutual respect and understanding for different approaches and complementary skills.
  • Consider examining referral routes and local networks that provide a mutual exchange of knowledge and information between local advice providers; larger organisations should share expertise in areas such as digital skills or raising funding, while organisations working with diverse communities should share knowledge of language and cultural issues.
  • The Advice Services Alliance should examine the role of the Advice Quality Standard in excluding some advice services, and investigate whether the development of a ‘scaffold’ quality assurance mechanism will enable more organisations working with diverse communities to access recognised standards.

For trusts, foundations and other key funders

  • Trusts, foundations and other key funders should examine the criteria and application processes for allocating funding to the advice sector to ensure that organisations working with diverse communities are not systematically excluded or overlooked.
  • Funders, local government and other stakeholders should consider allocating additional funding and other resources to respond to the needs of organisations that have been left behind through previous funding arrangements. This could, for example, include a ‘management capacity’ supplement or consultancy support for diverse communities along the lines of ‘funding plus’.
  • Trust for London should consider funding a network for advice services working with diverse communities. In the short term, it should be well-funded, responsive to need, and democratically designed and delivered. It should be tasked with improving the capacity of advice organisations working with diverse communities, raising their profile across the wider sector and increasing their participation in strategic debates.

For further research

  • Future research should explore beneficiary needs and challenges in more depth to gain an enhanced understanding of the role of the organisations supporting them, and what these organisations may need in order to operate sustainably. Future research could also explore the issues raised in this report outside of London.