"We must campaign for social justice, equality and a fairer society. We should not be intimidated by Government, our regulator, public sector funders and clients or anyone else. We must remain true to our mission, and act and speak for our members and beneficiaries. We have to promote and protect the independence of the voluntary and community sector and the wider charity sector."
These were the strong united views of the delegates to the recent annual National Association for Voluntary Community Action (navca) CORE conference for local voluntary and community infrastructure and development organisations (often working under the title of a CVS). Delegates did not necessarily use the precise words but they were clear in their view that contemporary politics, social and economic policy, and the interests of communities require the sector to have the confidence to speak up and to speak out
I had the privilege to attend this conference - held, significantly I thought, in Manchester, the city at the heart of the English devolution action. I was there in my capacity as a member of the navca board and one of its trustees.
The English devolution debate and roll-out is a prime example of why the sector has to be more vocal. It can and should make the case for addressing the democratic deficit in the early devolution "deals"; arguing that building social capital is as important as investing in economic infrastructure if there are to be strong and vibrant local communities and economies; and challenging social security and public service cuts so that they are not side-lined in favour of the infrastructure agenda. In essence, I am arguing that the CVS sector is essential to the localism, devolution and decentralisation agenda.
I have long argued, both in Huffington Post and elsewhere, that the voluntary and community sector can and should be part of the wider movements for civil liberty and human rights; for social, economic and environmental well-being; and for securing social justice, greater equality and a fairer, more co-operative (not just a strong) economy.
The sector should be (and often is) at the heart of a strong civil society. A vibrant sector with volunteers and staff focused on community activism very much complements political renewal. And it is very contemporary in terms of "new politics" of both the left and the radical right.
The sector should complement and challenge the state and public institutions, and thereby enabling both to be stronger and smarter. It forms a balance to corporate power and a voice for the voiceless. The sector requires a strong economy and a strong state and is not a substitute for the state or public sector.
When the state fails or falters the voluntary and community sector has always been ready to act and to mobilise social action to offer hope and services to people and their communities. It has often pioneered services which ultimately have been adopted by the public sector.
Pushing boundaries and meeting need is core the mission of a sector focused on its beneficiaries, and their needs and aspirations.
The sector is rightly proud of its record of service delivery, whether via spontaneous responses to immediate need, or contracted public services procured by the public sector. However, it is vital that the public sector recognises that when it contracts with the voluntary and community sector, it should do so on terms that allow the providers to innovate and shape services to meet needs (and not simply to comply with contract terms), and in ways that are commercially sustainable. And public sector contracting should never inhibit and deny organisations' rights to campaign and speak out.
Grant aid can and should support sector development and voice as well. Such activity is at the heart of social action and community activism. And it can find common cause with others right across civil society, including faith groups and trade unions. Democracy is always stronger when this happens.
The CORE conference discussed navca's exciting and contemporary strategy, which reflects much of what is in this article. This strategy is a powerful expression of the sector's values and purpose, and it makes the case for local infrastructure playing a central role in enabling community and voluntary groups to fulfil their mission on behalf of their beneficiaries.
For all that, the sector must recognise that it has to evolve, and that it can do so without undermining core principles and values. In particular, it has to be ready to challenge those within its own ranks that are not meeting the right standards and/or living the right values.
It was clear to me that the sector leaders at the Manchester conference felt bruised from the cuts and the challenges of current policy, and economic and social conditions. However, I sensed that optimism and determination significantly outshone any pessimism and anxiety. Of course, there are grounds for being anxious, but I am confident that in the same way as we are witnessing the emergence of new cadre of political activists, we will see a strong, values-driven voluntary and community sector, forging and strengthening a movement for social action and progressive social change.
The voluntary and community sector should never be partisan, but neither should this deter it from doing what it has to, and saying what it must even if this means challenging prevailing ideologies and core government policies. It is a movement that can complement political movements, by relentlessly promoting values based on social justice, equality and fairness, expressed and pursued through voluntary and community action.