We were formed in 1979 as the Federation of Independent Advice Centres (FIAC). Our founders were disparate community activists from across the UK trying to improve lives and conditions in mostly poor and decaying inner-urban areas. Amongst the tools they were using to try to bring about change was advice – to help tackle individuals’ problems, build awareness of rights and identify shared issues to mobilise campaigns.
On 28 April 1979, about 100 such activists from London and other major cities gathered at the Isaac Newton Primary School in North Kensington, London, to launch the new organisation. They represented perhaps half of the independent advice and community action projects in existence at that time.
The initial aim was to secure funding to develop common resources such as training, information sources and campaigning to achieve greater social impact. By 1983 the first two paid staff were employed thanks to a grant from the Greater London Council. A first National Director was appointed in 1989 and, all the while, membership grew steadily. In 1984, in the midst of the miners’ strike, membership increased by 80% and by 1994 we had over 800 members. By the new millennium, there were nearly 1,000.
In the 21st century our fortunes, and those of our members, have ebbed and flowed. After a first few years of added investment in advice the pattern became one of declining funding in real terms and an end to growth in the advice sector. In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, the long period of austerity saw services close, shrink or merge. Funding fell by about 30% and the number of services by about 25%. Membership numbers decreased – but never below approx. 650. The availability of grant funding, especially for support bodies such as ourselves, diminished quite severely. Nevertheless, while shifting to a more sustainable social enterprise business model, we did gradually develop and improve our support to members including our insurance scheme, training and qualification routes for advisers and managers, organisational guidance and advice tools such as specialist support and our AdvicePro online case-management system. These resources helped members to provide advice to around two million people a year.
In recent years membership numbers have increased again as the advice sector has diversified. New types of providers are emerging and we have broadened our eligibility criteria accordingly. With considerable effort we have become more financially sustainable and resilient, providing scope for development. Our network has remained the home for innovative projects delivering help in different ways. Online systems and service channels have begun to supplement traditional face-to-face and telephone help – a process accelerated by the Covid 19 pandemic. We ourselves are investing heavily in developing our own digital capabilities to vastly improve communications and collaboration with and between members. The aim remains, as it was for our founders, to achieve greater social impact.