As BACP publishes its policy report, our Third Sector Lead, Jeremy Bacon reflects on the challenges faced by community-based BACP organisational members dealing with the cost-of-living crisis.

‘We are forecasting that with the current cost-of-living crisis the need to raise enough funds will be more challenging than ever. Statutory funding is nearly non-existent and grant funding is fiercely competitive, so success rates (of grant applications) have reduced.’

This one comment from our survey of BACP organisational members in England carried out late in 2023 offers a snapshot of the desperate circumstances currently facing very many third sector counselling services across the UK.

In the BACP Policy team, we hear on a weekly basis about the innovation and impact of community-based counselling services serving clients and communities, adapting to changing needs and circumstances, and reaching clients who would otherwise have no access to therapy. In recent weeks, we’ve spoken to a range of specialist services working with women in prisons; providing life-changing therapy and connections to refugees and vulnerable migrants, and providing trauma-informed counselling and support to victims and survivors of sexual abuse.

While each of these organisations is unique and different from the others, with various founding histories, modalities of therapy offered, and funding and delivery models - some common themes are apparent. There’s a rising demand for therapy, increasing complexity of client issues, and critical financial pressures that for some, are threatening the very survival of their services.

In preparing our report, we spoke to counselling services from the four nations of the UK about how the cost-of-living crisis is impacting their communities, clients, staff and ability to continue to deliver therapy. We heard about the growing concern and helplessness of clients burdened by financial worries, and how these were exacerbating and compounding other issues being brought into therapy. In response to the needs of clients to deal with pressing financial and practical concerns, one service has introduced support-workers alongside its therapeutic work. They provide practical guidance, assistance and signposting to other agencies while enabling clients to continue with therapy.

Rising overhead costs, alongside cuts or stagnation in funding, have created enormous problems for service managers. Aware of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on their staff, services are trying to find ways of ensuring fair remuneration to ensure staff feel valued and able to continue their work. At a round-table event examining the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, one service manager highlighted this pressure: ‘We believe our staff should be remunerated properly for their work. When the real living wage increases, we will struggle to pay it – losing our status as a Real Living Wage employer, which in turn impacts our ability to attract grant funding.’ 

Further challenges for services are those that have been hard-wired into the sector for many years. Short-term grant funding makes it difficult to plan for the future or to maintain consistent delivery of tried-and-tested services. Often funders want to put money into innovation, rather than invest in existing delivery.

Amongst the diverse-and-varied funding models of third sector counselling organisations, there are services that deliver all or part of their work through public contracts. While for many, this offers greater security and the ability to maintain and grow their delivery, this model isn’t without its problems. In its State of The Sector report published in February 2024, NPC? estimated that charities prop up state services by £2.4bn a year, indicating that demand for services far outweighs the contracted value. For many organisations, public contracts come with requirements beyond what their capacity and business models can sustain, while others report that independence from statutory funding is part of their identity and culture, which makes them trusted by the clients and communities they serve.

We’re very grateful to all the service leads and organisations who share their experience with us in support of BACP’s policy work. Through our cost-of-living report and a detailed case-study policy report ahead of the general election, we’ll continue to increase our calls on policymakers and commissioners to recognise the vital work and impact of community-based services and the critical importance of adequately funding them so that they, their clients and the communities they serve, survive and thrive despite the cost-of-living crisis.