24/09/2012 08:39 BST | Updated 22/11/2012 05:12 GMT

Never A More Important Time for Bold Leadership in Charities and the VCS

There has perhaps never been a more important time for the voluntary and community sector since 1945 than today. It has a duty to show the necessary strategic vision, imagination, leadership, values, and above all, courage to stand up and make a difference.

The prospects over the next few years will be very challenging for many voluntary and community sector and more significantly its beneficiaries.

They face the consequences and impact of:

  • The longest and deepest recession since the 1930s
  • An increase in poverty and especially child poverty and poverty for households with employed members
  • Unprecedented cuts in public expenditure and lest the reader be under any illusion, the vast ajority of the last spending review cuts, let alone those to imposed in the 2013 review, are yet to take effect
  • Radical and in many ways untested changes to the welfare benefit system but changes that are already causing hardship
  • High (and growing) numbers of young unemployed people
  • The potential for social discord in place of social cohesion
  • Growing demands for their services
  • A public sector shift from grants to contracts, and an increasing reliance by the public sector of payment by results contracts - and a public sector commissioning culture based on control and all too often, totally unrealistic funding
  • The prime contracting regimes in services such as the Work Programme being at best problematic and sometimes fatal for good voluntary organisations

My list of woes could go on and on.

Of course, there are new opportunities too - not least arising from the localist and wider public sector reform programme which envisages greater opportunities for voluntary and social sector organisations to deliver public services. And the community rights to challenge and take over public assets will inevitably benefit some voluntary organisations.

And the Olympic and Paralympic volunteering - games makers, ambassadors and the rest - have demonstrated an inherent willingness and interest in volunteering right across our society. That said, it is vital that volunteering, important as it is, and the voluntary sector do not become conflated or deliberately seen as substitutes for each other by politicians and others.

Government and indeed the wider political rhetoric at national and local level is favourable and very supportive of the sector. And yet, understandably, we have seen a growing degree of cynicism about 'The Big Society', not least because there has been no consistent narrative or action from the Government - and to be blunt, too many policies, as implemented, have actually undermined the very concept.

Given the current environment and the expectations for the coming years it, would be too easy for the voluntary and community sector to look backwards; to wish for a past 'golden age' - though in truth, one suspects that there never was such an age; to retreat into a comfort zone that feels comfortable even if, in the longer term, it might be more akin to a death pit; and to lose the energy of reform and change that has been one of the drivers for the sector over the decades and centuries.

I am not suggesting that the sector will find it easy. Far from it. Rather, I am arguing that the voluntary and community sector at local level and through its national bodies has to move onto the front foot.

It has to be ready to challenge, expose, oppose and offer alternatives to those Government or local authority policies which are damaging the life chances and lives of people and their communities - often charities' beneficiaries.

The sector has as I have argued before - - to be prepared to challenge the underlying macro-economic and philosophy that are the cause of the specific policy decisions and cuts. It has to align with others where there is a shared agenda on these matters. This does not mean being sucked into partisan political campaigning - but neither does it prevent strong and effective 'political' interventions.

The voluntary and community sector must enter these debates by drawing on the direct experience and aspirations of its beneficiaries and the results of its practical work. It also has to be true to its mission. This means the sector has to be seen to be arguing from the perspective of and on behalf of its members, beneficiaries and wider society - and not from a self-interest or institutional position.

The sector must be willing to recognise the need for change; to adopt new practices; and find ways to respond to changing conditions such as public sector commissioning and contracting. That said, the sector must continue arguing for reforms to such policies and practices, and specifically for more grant aid.

Just as it is possible to seek to mitigate poverty through, for example, food banks whilst campaigning for more socially-just economic and social policy from Government, it also has to be possible to argue for reform whilst participating in public service contracting.

The sector has absolutely no choice but to grow its 'commercial' skills and capacity if it is going to survive and grow - and again, this is not incompatible with being a charity and value-driven. It is 'not' about commercialising the sector. It 'is' about saying 'no' to so called opportunities as much as saying 'yes' to the right ones!

Above all, it is about better risk, contracting and financial management - its about survival!

The sector has no option but to look at mergers, alliances and shared services - but such approaches should always be pursued for positive and mission related reasons, and not reluctantly as some defensive fix.

The sector must look for and where appropriate be ready to adopt new financing arrangements such as social investment where this can demonstrably add value and be financially sound. So too, it must be ready to consider establishing trading companies in response to contracting and, in the right conditions, partner with the private sector - but only if the values and ethos are right and can be sustained.

The sector has a good track record on campaigning but it has now to 'up its game'. And national bodies must collaborate more in the defence of the values and the rights and needs of charities' beneficiaries - for all of the reasons explained above.

The sector has to be strategic at both the local and national level. It has to be looking not to 2012 (though of course, for many caught up in sheer survival, this will be the primary focus) but to 2020 and beyond. The very nature of society, the economy, public services and the relationship between state and citizen is changing. Localism has the potential to be the catalyst for the rebirth and regaining of control by communities. This offers huge opportunities to organisations rooted in communities and local community action.

The next few years are going to be tough - but there will be opportunities. It is vital that the voluntary and community sector identifies and seizes these opportunities in ways that enable it to be in the vanguard and retain control - not the public or private sectors; and above all, in ways that benefit people and communities. I am proud to observe many bodies from the sector right across the country who are evolving, seizing these opportunities and showing leadership. Tragically, however, far too many are not.

At this time more than at any other the sector has to ensure that it has talent strategies to ensure it has the right people with the right skills and experience as employees, volunteers and trustees. Likewise there must be effective governance with trustees setting ambitious strategies, and supporting and holding executives to account for their execution.

Now is the time for bold and effective sector leadership at both local and national levels. We need leaders in touch with members and communities; leaders driven by a passion for the sector and its values; and above all, leaders capable of enabling the necessary changes and persuading others, including Government, of the need to change.

There has perhaps never been a more important time for the voluntary and community sector since 1945 than today. It has a duty to show the necessary strategic vision, imagination, leadership, values, and above all, courage to stand up and make a difference.