Given the current political and economic agenda, it is all too tempting for the voluntary and community sector to retreat into a shell of despondency, worry and introspection.
It might be not be so surprising if this were to happen. Funding, especially public sector funding, is being dramatically scaled back. Public service contracts are increasingly 'price driven', and much of public procurement is tilted in favour of the large corporate providers. Against this backdrop, demand for the sector's services is increasing as the cuts bite and public services are withdrawn. Inequality is increasing, and there are real worries about the impact of the latest phase of "welfare reforms", including the benefit cap, cuts to tax credits and the "bedroom tax".
- the voluntary and community sector has to be resilient and offer hope to its beneficiaries and the wider community
- it has to be ready to challenge political and economic policies when these are damaging for its beneficiaries and communities
- it has to be ready to offer positive alternative policies (and where appropriate, services and support) for beneficiaries and communities
Somehow, the sector has to find the confidence to lead the way in setting a different agenda based on community, solidarity, fairness, social justice, greater equality and sustainability.
Currently, the political discourse and governmental action is dominated by neo-liberal ideology, a reliance on markets, and claims that the State must be smaller, and consequently public expenditure must be cut severely, and that increased progressive taxation will simply curtail growth and long term prosperity. All of these assertions and beliefs can and should be challenged in different ways - but by whom?
I believe (as do many others, including "The Call for Action for the Common Good" a voluntary and community sector-led group), that the voluntary and community sector is well placed to argue for a change in macro and micro public policy, and to argue for a society based on the principles and values of the sector itself.
This requires the sector and those that are part of it to behave in ways that demonstrate the values it promotes. This could include paying the Living Wage (not just the minimum wage) and/or adopting good governance. It has to be ready to act where there are gaps in state provision, whilst arguing a case against the causes of these gaps and the resultant demands. The growth in food banks is an excellent example of this.
So what are the values and principles that the sector could be promoting locally and nationally?
I believe that they include:
- solidarity and the benefits for collective action and purpose
- social coherence whilst valuing diversity
- social justice and greater equality
- redistribution and progressive taxation to fund public services
- collaboration rather than an obsession with competition
- community and a sense of both place and community of interest
- a strong independent civil society
- business, public, social, and voluntary and community sectors working together for the public benefit
- good governance, transparency and accountability
- people taking responsibility within a consensual framework of expectation, and this responsibility including responsibility towards others
- empowering individuals and communities
- not demonising or scapegoating others, especially minorities and the disadvantaged
- the right of voluntary and community organisations to speak out and campaign whilst avoiding partisan politics
The voluntary and community sector has a unique ability and authority to promote these values and principles by its actions on behalf of communities and individuals - noting in passing that the power of its actions will usually be much more powerful than its exaltations.
The next few years will be very challenging and difficult for the voluntary and community sector. It will require outstanding values driven leadership at the individual organisation level, and from and within its local and national sector bodies. Leaders have to be ready to collaborate within the sector and with kindred spirits in other sectors. They must also be honest and clear about what can and what cannot be achieved; and the reasons for the current challenges and even disappointments.
The sector has to consider how it responds to the current environment. Some organisations will fall over; some will merge; some will share services and programmes; and some will reinvent themselves. What matters above all, however, is that they strive to fulfil their missions and always consider what is best for the beneficiaries and not their institutions or even at times their staff - though they should be exemplar employers. They need to guard their independence and treat contracts and funding agreements in ways that enable their independence and their voice to be protected. The sector can and should promote the power of volunteering and voluntarism but not as a substitute for effective state action. The sector requires a strong and focused state.
The sector has to play both a short and a long term game. It has to be principled and pragmatic. It has to be resolute and flexible. Above all, it has to offer hope and a vision of a society based on something better than self-interest, privilege and squalor.
Unless the sector shows optimism and offers such hope to its beneficiaries and their communities it will fail them and in so doing allow forces based on a very different set of values to dominate. It can and should light a beacon of hope and change.