THE BLOG

Charity Sector Leaders Must Act Today

14/04/2014 11:53 BST | Updated 11/06/2014 10:59 BST

As a charity trustee and committed supporter of charities and the voluntary and community sector, I am acutely aware that the sector is facing some of its biggest challenges in our lifetimes.

This is ironic at the very time when the development of social capital, and the need for a vibrant civil society and social action have never been greater.

These challenges are coming thick and fast from a variety of sources.

The Government has introduced the so-called 'gagging' legislation, which is designed to curtail campaigning in advance of the general election. Other right wing politicians and commentators would go further with their demands that charities should be banned from active lobbying and campaigning altogether.

It is also the case that some public sector commissioning, procuring and grant allocating organisations have made thinly-veiled threats to organisations which are in receipt of public money not to challenge their policies and practices .... with a silent but implied 'or else'. This would suggest that the Compact is simply being ignored. Like charity regulation it needs to be reformed.

It must be remembered that charities and voluntary and community sector organisations have often been established to secure social change, and to promote and protect the interests of their beneficiaries. This required (and still requires) them to campaign, to oppose harmful policies and to promote positive alternatives. Indeed, it is a fact that much of the great social and environmental reforms of the last few centuries would not have been realised without the strong advocacy of charities.

Many of the current government's social and welfare reform policies are causing serious and long term hardship and pain for some of the most marginalised members of society. Charities representing those citizens have a right, and I would argue, a duty to speak out. Similarly, environmental charities will wish to argue their case for changes to public policy and practices across the public and business sectors. And those charities concerned with homelessness should make the case for reform to the housing sector and an expansion of affordable social housing.

Social action takes many forms including collective campaigning as well as responsive service provision. And on many of these issues, charities are being joined by faith groups. This is civil society in action. Surely it is in part what the 'Big Society' was meant to be about?Charities and the wider voluntary and community sector are also experiencing deep cuts to their revenue, especially grant and contract finance. This whilst at the same time, the public sector seems to be expecting charities and the voluntary and community sector to take over some (many, even) of their responsibilities and their services. All too often, the sector is being expected to subsidise the public sector even when it patently does not have financial resources, people or skills to do so.

Prevailing public sector procurement and contracting arrangements are inherently (and I would argue, ridiculously and inappropriately) challenging, making it very difficult for many smaller and sometimes even larger charitable organisations to bid for public sector contracts. And 'payment by results' contracts require access to significant capital resources and the accompanying balance sheets to enable borrowing against future revenue. Business sector prime contractor models with the charitable, and voluntary and community sector as sub-contractors (the Work Programme being a high profile example of this model) have too often been disastrous for the charity sector with inappropriate risk transfer and other detrimental factors. AYet, the Government wishes to pursue still more of these kinds of contracts.

Consequently, charities that are reliant on public sector revenue to survive and fulfil their mission can all too easily find themselves accepting contracts and contract terms, which are less than optimal and all too often, commercially disabling.

Austerity and the wider prevalent social and economic conditions are creating additional demand for the services of many charities, and the wider voluntary and community sector. Yet the resources from voluntary fundraising and the public sector are usually too little to enable many large and small organisations to respond to the desperate needs that are presenting themselves.

I could continue this litany of challenges but the general thrust should be clear from those which I have already cited. Of course, whilst some charities are struggling and some folding, there are many examples of those that are thriving and others that are strengthening their position through mergers.

The reality is that for chief executives, senior staff and trustees, the current period is not easy and perhaps not what most of them originally signed up for.

In times such as these, charities might be expected to look to their national 'infrastructure' and membership bodies for support, guidance - and sometimes, just a friendly face and a sympathetic ear.

So what should the national bodies be doing? Here, I must declare an interest as the vice-chair of the National Association for Voluntary & Community Associations (NAVCA). However, I must stress that this article is written in a purely personal capacity.

I expect the national bodies to be doing all or many of the following. Some are, but in my experience and in the views of sector colleagues with whom I regularly speak, none are doing 'all' of these effectively.

My action agenda for the national sector bodies includes:

• speaking up for the sector; its values; its contribution to the nations' social, economic, environmental and political wellbeing and to local wellbeing; and defending it from unjust political, media and legislative attacks - although the emphasis should always be on communities and beneficiaries, and not being defensive, either personally or for the sector itself

• spearheading campaigns on critical social, economic and environmental issues - and not being afraid to upset national politicians of all parties

• raising the sector's voice in Parliament, in Whitehall, and across the wider public sector including local government and in the media

• to do as much of the above in concert with other national charity sector bodies, and where appropriate, in alliance with other civil society bodies such as faith groups and churches, trade unions and others

• finding real and honest common cause with others where there is a shared interest - for example working with the Local Government Association (LGA) on issues such as central government local government financial support, rather than simply attacking local authorities struggling to find 30--40% budget cuts

• in partnership with their members, developing new models of fundraising, service delivery, productivity improvement and organisational infrastructure

• facilitating mergers and the building of consortia, and establishing shared support and other services across the sector locally and nationally; and offering professional advice and services

• intervening at the invitation of local bodies to broker arrangements between the sector and the public sector, and within the sector

• offering challenge and being a critical friend to the charity, voluntary and community sector, and through proactive leadership, creating wide sector change (and not being afraid to criticise failure or unacceptable behaviour within the sector)

• living the behaviours required of the sector and of which the sector is rightly proud themselves in terms of governance, ethics and much more - in effect, leadership by example

This is a challenging agenda for national membership bodies which are themselves finding government grant severely cut or totally removed, and for whom other sources of financial support are hard to maintain, let alone grow. And all this at a time when they have to retain the support (and ideally, a consensus) across their membership and the wider charity sector. However, I suggest that these challenges are minimal compared to those being faced by front line charities, and voluntary and community groups.

In addition the national leadership bodies should positively support the Chief Executive of the NPC Dan Corry's timely and imaginative proposal to establish a Commission on Social Capital.

Much has to be done now, and certainly between now and the 2015 general election. If national sector leaders and leadership bodies are not ready to step up to defend, promote and lead the sector who will? And local sector leaders should do they same. Of course many are but they need to do more for if the sector is weakened much further, the real losers will be communities and people in need across the country.

I remain optimistic but in honesty, time is not our side. So, it must be 'action this day'!