The Blog

It's Time for the Leadership of the Voluntary and Community Sectors to Find Their Voice

The hope and confidence that the government's commitment to the 'Big Society' offered to the VCS in 2010 has ebbed away to be replaced by a cynical dismissal of what now seems to have been little more than rhetoric rather than an substantial set of policies.

The scale and magnitude of the challenges, which are confronting the voluntary and community sector (VCS), are unprecedented. The sector, the communities it represents and supports, and its beneficiaries as well as its funders face the most serious hardship and challenge.

Public expenditure cuts have already taken their toll but the overwhelming majority of the cuts announced in the 2010 spending review are yet to be implemented. The government's welfare 'reforms' will start to impact on poor and vulnerable people and their communities in a major way from April 2013. There are few signs that the economy will significantly improve, if it improves at all, in the coming year - indeed there is a real risk of a triple-dip recession. Poverty, inequality and hardship are sadly more likely to increase rather than decrease.

The hope and confidence that the government's commitment to the 'Big Society' offered to the VCS in 2010 has ebbed away to be replaced by a cynical dismissal of what now seems to have been little more than rhetoric rather than an substantial set of policies. This is greatly disappointing and it is to be hoped that the government can yet be persuaded to rekindle and live up to the 'Big Society' promise in 2013.

The 'Open Public Services' white paper and constant ministerial statements speak enthusiastically about a greater role for the VCS and wider social sector in the delivery of public services. Yet repeated public procurement projects and public expenditure pressures have favoured large business sector providers over the social sector. The Work Programme has shown how inappropriate public procurement and contracting models and (with a few honourable exceptions), the wrong behaviours in the business and public sectors actually damages the viability of the social sector including the VCS. Public sector commissioners, sometimes deliberately and more often accidentally or by default, are setting contract terms that hugely restrict the social sector's ability to innovate and respond to beneficiary need rather than comply with contract requirements. This challenges, in extremis, the very nature of an independent sector.

Recent surveys and research has shown that voluntary fundraising is reducing for many in the sector and, anyway, there have to be questions about the morality and practicality of using charity income to subsidise public contracts. Of course, the majority of the VCS does not wish to be 'commissioned' or 'contracted' to deliver public services and may still wish to receive grant aid (a declining source of funds) and/or rely on voluntary income. The problem is that public expenditure cuts and the retreat of public sector provision and interventions are leading to more demand pressures on many VCS organisations but without the necessary additional funding.

The picture that I have described is deeply depressing and worrying. It would be easy for the social sector and the VCS in particular to choose to retreat from the field, withdraw their services and adopt a very pessimistic view of the future. Whilst some in the sector will display both these behaviours, in my experience, most will not. The VCS is resilient and resolute. It can be innovative and creative. It can and has continually changed to meet new demands and new circumstances. The fact is, however, that it will have to demonstrate these characteristics in spades in 2013.

Not all VCS organisations will survive. Some will not deserve to survive because they are inefficient or no longer fit for purpose or relevant to the beneficiaries for whom they were established. Some will merge; some will acquire others; some will form consortia to deliver services and/or bid for public sector contracts; some will collaborate with business organisations; and some will re-invent themselves. There is not and should not be one approach to survival. Trustees, members and staff will have to find their own solutions to meet their own circumstances.

A major challenge for trustees, members and senior staff across the VCS will to strike the right balance between campaigning against specific government and local authority policies that are damaging to their beneficiaries and delivering services. They will also need to consider how they should campaign against the underlying macro-economic and public policies that are resulting in austerity and the hardship previously mentioned. This in turn will mean considering with whom to form alliances whilst of course avoiding partisan political endorsement or opposition. Such decisions are never easy but can be fully justified provided they are based on VCS organisation's values, mission and the needs of their beneficiaries and underpinned by evidence. Like it or not, government policies are throwing the charity sector into the political arena. Balanced and informed decisions therefore have to be taken.

Food banks are a good example of the sector responding to need but in so doing there has to be an evidence-based analysis of why, in a wealthy economy, such community resources are necessary. The sector has to challenge the causes as well as tackle the symptoms.

In this turbulent period, the sector needs bold and effective leadership at every level including individual VCS bodies; local representative bodies; and the national sector organisations.

In terms of the national bodies, there has to be a greater commitment to find a common voice on crucial challenges and issues. There is room for more mergers and possibly some acquisitions at this level but the most important need is to create alliances to defend the sector and more importantly its beneficiaries. This is not a time for 'ego' or 'self-interested posturing/positioning driven policy and action.' Nor is this the time for avoiding hard choices and decisions that may upset some including some members of national or local membership bodies.

The VCS must demand that its national bodies show proper and robust leadership of the sector. This leadership needs to be attuned, responsive and accountable to the wider sector - challenging the sector to change and modernise whilst protecting its values and mission. This means: 'not' automatically supporting those in the sector which are not fulfilling these values and their mission and/or are discrediting the wider sector; offering professional, technical and policy support and advice to organisations in the sector which are in difficulty and to those seeking positively to change; developing new ideas and models of fund raising, service delivery, consortia forming, governance and more; fostering alternative relations with the business, finance and public sector to create collaboration on the right terms and in pursuit of the right outcomes; and quite frankly, providing whatever assistance and advice the sector is calling out for.

Above all though, the national VCS bodies have to be a far more robust and effective 'voice' than hitherto in the national policy debates - ready to challenge and oppose as well as to advocate alternative policies and practices. This voice must be for the sector and must be even louder for the sector's beneficiaries. There must be a willingness to form alliances within the sector and with others articulating a progressive voice. If these voices are not formed and heard in 2013, communities across the country will be the poorer.

The next twelve months are not going to be easy or comfortable in the VCS or within the communities where local voluntary and community action can and does make a difference. The sector and its leaders in particular have both a duty and an opportunity to step up to the plate and to defend and promote an alternative form of collectivism based on hope and values. There may be not be many victories ahead but if the leadership of the sector fails to rise to the challenge, there will be none - and that will be a gross betrayal of our values and mission.

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