Last Friday I was privileged to be a speaker at the Voluntary Action Within Kent (VAWK - www.vawk.org.uk ) bi-annual conference - 'Hanging on in there', being the conference theme. This provided the opportunity to speak with, and more significantly to: listen to colleagues from across the voluntary and community sector; hear about the pressures under which they have to operate; and learn about some very exciting projects and initiatives.
In spite of an all-pervasive uncertainty and the prevailing financial, social and economic conditions - it was, as ever, reassuring to find the sector as represented at this conference to be very resilient and full of energy, commitment and new ideas. That said, there is no doubt that many in the voluntary and community sector are struggling to survive, to secure funding, and to honour their missions. Indeed, many are understandably frustrated/angry/distraught when they see the effects on their beneficiaries and communities of the many public expenditure cuts and in particular, the current wave of welfare changes. And the reality is that whilst some do have realistic and practical plans in place to respond, and whilst others are still grappling with what they can and should do in response - sadly, a number (and too many) face the real prospect going under (let me be clear that I have no evidence that any organisation at this conference face such prospects).
Given this context and these challenges, my core message to a largely voluntary and community sector audience was that the sector and the organisations within it must 'gather' themselves to sustain their confidence in order to:
• hold true to their missions, their values and principles
• avoid ever feeling and more importantly acting as victims in spite of the impact of public expenditure cuts and of economic austerity on voluntary fundraising
• constantly innovate and develop services to meet the needs and aspirations of their beneficiaries
• reinvent themselves so as to be able to survive and fulfil their missions
• be clear when they will /will not be prepared to step in to either replace the public sector / public funding and/or ameliorate the impact of public policy which they may be campaigning against
• challenge and resist the public sector including Government when they truly believe or have evidence that policies are damaging communities and vulnerable people
• build alliances with others across civil society to create opposition to harmful policies and advocate alternatives
• work in pragmatic partnership with local authorities and others to help influence and shape public budget and service decisions (at the conference Cllr Peter Fleming, Leader of Sevenoaks Council was clear that this is what he sought)
• be prepared to say 'no' to contracting opportunities which are not right for them and/or their beneficiaries
The theme of the conference was 'resilience'. And much of the sector has, over the years, demonstrated resilience. But I introduced two more words beginning with 'R' - 'resistance' and 'revival'.
The voluntary and community sector provides a voice for communities and often for some of the most marginalised members of those communities. This 'voice' role must be protected and indeed enhanced. Yes - this will inevitably bring voluntary and community groups into conflict from time to time with Government and local authorities, but this is a natural and vital component of a modern democracy. The sector must not be timid and nor should it duck the task of taking-on politicians for fear of losing funding or contracts. Rather, politicians should be challenged to ensure that funding and contracts are not be at risk because of legitimate challenges from the sector on behalf of its beneficiaries. The sector has a truly legitimate resistance role to play - and should not be shy about stepping up to the plate or allying with others with a common cause.
It also has to be ready to revive and re-invent itself. This includes: refocusing services; experimenting; introducing new ones and phasing out existing ones; possible mergers; forming consortia; sharing support and specialist services; collaborating with the business sector; developing new services and ways of delivering these services; identifying new sources of contractual and charitable funding; where appropriate, using loans to build capacity and position VCS organisations for contracting; and creating trading entities. This is not an exhaustive list, and for many voluntary organisations may not be wholly appropriate, but most should be actively considering some change - and, most probably have no choice.
Voluntary and community sector organisations must hold true to their objectives, missions and values. If they are to meet the needs of their beneficiaries and to sustain their objectives, they must be financially sound, have sustainable business models and be resilient. It will be may be necessary to resist so-called public sector commissioning in those instances where in reality, it is nothing more than a procurement fig-leaf process that stifles innovation and/or the ability to meet the needs and choices of beneficiaries or seeks to control what providers can do. Voluntary and community sector organisations must never become the 'agents' of the state - that is not what they were created for.
The values of the sector must be constantly reflected in all that it does - which includes: how it fund raises; how it employs staff (it should be an exemplar employer, adopting the 'living wage', etc.); how it is led; how it is managed; and how it is governed. It is outcomes and the needs of the beneficiaries that need to be first and foremost - rather than personal or institutional ambitions.
National bodies such as NAVCA (of which I am a trustee), NCVO and local and regional intermediary bodies have clear and specific responsibilities to support organisations in the voluntary and community sector to develop and implement strategies for resilience, resistance and revival.
Strong communities will be essential if localism and economic growth are to be secured, and if social exclusion and inequality are to be addressed. This requires, amongst other conditions, a vibrant and confident voluntary and community sector - and not one trapped in yesterday's agenda or one refusing to face economic realities or one on its knees.
VAWK itself is a fine example of community entrepreneurialism. It is an organisation that has evolved and continues to evolve to meet new needs and new circumstances. It supports and offers leadership to its members and partners; it collaborates with others; and has a good set of relations with the local public sector including politicians. It has given birth to and supported the birth of a range of new services and organisations including initiatives such as SAFE, which is led by young people and addresses mental health challenges faced by young people. One of these young people from SAFE's board gave a confident and forcefull presentation at the conference.
VAWK has a confident trustee and executive leadership team with committed and enthusiastic staff and volunteers. It is, in short, an exemplar - and the sector and communities across the country need more such energetic and 'fit for purpose' bodies.
I am in no doubt whatsoever that a confident and above all 'contemporary' focused voluntary and community sector can and will make for a stronger civil society, and a fairer and more equal society. This is surely what the sector is all about and must alays be about!