2013 has not been an easy year for many charities and the wider voluntary and community sector (VCS)
• the sector has experienced significant financial challenges as public sector grants and contracts have been taken away or severely squeezed. Voluntary fundraising has been particularly challenging as living standards and pay continue to fall. At the same time, demand for the services of many charities and VCS organisations has increased driven by demographic changes, Government welfare reforms, cuts to public services and the growth in poverty, even amongst those in work.
• charities have been subject to political and media attacks for speaking out on behalf of their beneficiaries and now face the prospect of being 'gagged' by the Lobbying Bill and being less able to use the legal challenge of 'judicial review' to support beneficiaries and clients.
• there have been media and political scurries around the pay of the some senior personnel in the sector; the fallout from the Cup Trust exposure; the recent National Audit Office report on the supposed shortcomings of the Charity Commission, and some calls for either its abolition or it being taken over by HMRC.
• the Government's idea of the 'Big Society' led by vibrant charity and voluntary (and volunteer) sectors has seemed remarkably 'unreal' for many as confirmed by the recent report, 'The Big Society Audit' by Caroline Slocock of Civil Exchange. That said, Caroline concludes that the concept and underlying strength of civil society is far from dead.
• charities and VCS organisations have had to close and/or make staff redundant. Some have merged and others have plans to do so. Some find themselves contracted to deliver services for the public sector on terms that are non-viable and/or which are compromising their mission and values. And too many find themselves facing the prospect of closure or compromising their employment standards, service quality and principles.
The list could be longer! As I say, it's been a tough year.
I recently wrote about my long-term optimism for the charity and wider voluntary and community sectors - http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/john-tizard/voluntary-sector_b_4328501.html and was pleasantly surprised by the general positive response that this article provoked. However, I must admit that I was also alarmed by some of the reports which I was sent in response, of the severity of the dire straits in which too many charities and VCS bodies currently find themselves.
However, even more alarming than the financial challenges, was that the single most common thread of feedback to the article was people in the sector and outside it questioning the ability and even the 'will' of some of its leaders to rise to the challenges ahead. Indeed, some questioned whether sector leaders have been too slow in responding, with some even questioning whether there has been too much collusion with unfavourably political agendas and funders.
So what about 'leadership' within the sector?
The recent 'Panorama' programme on the influence that funders 'may' have, should surely be a sharp 'wake up' call. Personally, I am clear that charities and VCS bodies in receipt of public contracts 'must not feel inhibited' from speaking out when they disagree with the policies of organisations with which they are contracting. The pressure to collude or simply stay quiet may be huge - but it must be resisted.
In 2014 and 2015, up to and beyond the general election, the charity and VCS sectors will require much of its leaders at the national, local and individual organisation level. Both executive and trustee leaders will have to display 'exemplar' leadership of their organisations, their teams of staff and volunteers and of the sector itself.
Survival depends on effective leadership - and so does influence and recognition.
It is a fact that surveys still show that charities are held in much higher public trust than the public sector, politicians and business. Therefore charity sector leaders should draw on this popular support to make the case for the sector and its ethical contribution. Indeed, they can draw favourable comparisons with those elements of the corporate sector that have demonstrated unacceptable and unethical practices and a lack of values.
The multi-dimensional diversity of the charity and VCS sector is surely a strength to be celebrated and safeguarded. Alliances can be built with faith groups and others that share common agendas. Above all, the charity and VCS sectors cannot afford to be isolationist, precious or elitist - or complacent. Rather, they must remain true to their mission and their values - which again requires effective leadership.
Of course, this ought to flow naturally, for surely charities and the wider VCS should be well placed to respond to some of the national public and policy agenda including: localism; a focus on place; personalisation of public services; and greater levels of co-production of services and community development.
This may or may not involve contracting with the public sector to deliver public services, for the reality is that whilst public sector contracting has become ever important for many charities, the vast majority do not contract with or even receive grant aid from the public sector. I am quite clear that charities and the wider VCS should not allow itself to be regarded as existing simply to be a delivery machine for the public sector - although for some in the sector, this is a natural and logical role to play, provided the terms are right.
Alongside the wider social sector (including social enterprises, co-operatives and mutuals), the charity and VCS sector offers the public sector a range of service delivery partnership models which are real alternatives to those with traditional corporates. Such service arrangements do not have to be subject to competitive procurement designed for contracting between the public sector and large corporates. Rather, they can be based on collaborative and partnership arrangements.
And then there is funding.
Sector leaders have to find new means of raising funds from the public, corporate sector and others. They have to inspire potential donors and funders. They have to argue for new sources of funding and for the retention of traditional funding such as public sector grants.
Social investment and community enterprise will inevitably play increasingly important roles as sources of funding for some (though not all) in the sector. Leaders will have to be ready to embrace such approaches when these are appropriate; and equally be ready to reject them when they are inappropriate. Similarly, many in the sector will be seeking to make ethical investments to create income, so sector leaders will have to engage, intelligently, with the financial services industry and regulators to secure the right balance and opportunities. In particular, charity and VCS leaders will have to consider how best to forge new relations with ethically minded businesses.
Many organisations in the sector are already using modern technology and social media to connect and develop new relations with funders, volunteers, beneficiaries and supporters. More will have to do so. Leaders will need to drive this development.
Above all, the sector's leaders will have to make the case for a strong, vibrant and independent charity and VCS sector. They will have to argue that the sector is:
- a fundamental part of a modern economy and modern society
- a source of democratic and popular involvement
- a force for good, fairness and justice
- and, a provider of advice, support and service to millions of citizens and communities.
Sector leaders will have to argue for the right of the sector to speak out, to campaign and to promote alternative public policy.
The sector has to be clear about its role, and the boundaries between it and the State. It should complement but not be a substitute for public provision - but when the latter is under attack or being withdrawn, I recognise that this becomes a hard call for many organisations. The leaders of the charity and VCS sectors at national, local and organisational level must, as any excellent leader will in any sector, be ready and willing to challenge members and those in the sector in order to secure the progress and change so necessary for beneficiaries and survival.
Finally, effective leadership will be dependent on exemplar governance and accountability. Complacency here is most troubling. The sector has to show the way and not be found wanting on either governance or accountability.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, I am optimistic, long term, for the charity and VCS sector. However, to fulfil its potential and truly thrive requires bold, passionate and values driven leadership. The sector should demand nothing less than such - and its beneficiaries can afford no less