THE BLOG
25/11/2013 06:37 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 05:59 GMT

VCS - A Force to Be Reckoned With

I am proud to say that I am optimistic for the future of the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in England over the next few years.

Now, I recognise that to many in the sector, this may seem a perverse view. And indeed, finding myself speaking at two conferences in Hampshire and London on the future of the sector last and this week , I have been challenged to justify my positive stance when all around us small and larger VCS organisations are feeling overwhelmed by financial and related challenges.

A core reason for my optimism is related to a fundamental belief in the sector, its resilience, its ability to evolve and adapt to meet new circumstances, and its sheer determination to serve its beneficiaries. If the sector or organisations within fail, then the principal losers are their beneficiaries and their communities, as well, of course, as the staff who give so much to their organisations and beneficiaries.

Of course, I accept that not all VCS organisations will survive and many others will, inevitably, be badly damaged as a result of a combination of public sector austerity, falling voluntary fund raising and increasing demand for their services.

I believe that the sector faces a binary choice as it prepares for greater social and economic hardship across communities. Either, it can simply adopt a victim mentality and say that it is all too much (though sadly, experience shows that such an approach usually fails to draw much tangible sympathy and tends to become self-fulfilling); or the alternative is to do what progressive VCS organisations and the sector collectively have done over many decades and centuries - evolve and position itself for the new era. That said, given the nature of contemporary challenges, this evolution may have to be a tad revolutionary!

Evolutionary or indeed revolutionary change does not and should not imply the sector or organisations within abandoning or compromising their values, principles and missions. Indeed to the contrary, they must always be guided by these and they must retain their ethos and their ethics. The sector has to seek to change the wider public and political discourse away from deregulated markets, unfettered competition and 'self-avarice', to the pursuit of social justice, equality, collaboration, solidarity and community.

I do find it curious that both the sector collectively and many of its national leaders have been hesitant to speak out and to promote the tenets on which the sector is based, for in this, the sector can find common ground with many faith groups, ethical businesses and many individual citizens.

The sector has to make the case for its own unique contribution without exaggerating or falsifying this. The same goes for individual organisations within it. It has to protect and be proud of its independence, even when in receipt of major financial support or contracts from the public sector. It must not be gagged by contract or by legislation or by funders. Where there is injustice or a wrong being done or potentially going to be done to its beneficiaries and communities, it has a duty to speak up and if necessary campaign against government policy. It also has a duty to argue for alternative policies and should do so from the strength of the practical evidence available to it and its beneficiaries. Public sector policy makers should also wish to hear from and engage the sector in policy making, review and revision.

There will be opportunities in 2014 and beyond. There will also be occasions when the sector and organisations within will feel obliged to take action on behalf of beneficiaries and communities. This action might be to advocate on behalf of individuals and communities. It might to campaign. It might be to set up much needed services as is happening with the unprecedented growth in food banks. These may seem reactive but they can never-the-less be positive opportunities for the VCS and organisations within it. They can provide a lease of life, attract funding, members and other support, and demonstrate relevance.

There are differences between large national and local community VCS organisations. They need to work together and to respect their differences but more importantly their shared values and interests. Equally those organisations (the majority within the sector) that do not seek public money should and those that do have to have mutual respect. The sector has to demonstrate its internal solidarity to have the strength to work with other sectors effectively.

The Government, most local authorities and the wider public sector will continue to seek to contract with the sector for the provision of public services and to secure better outcomes for the public. Sadly, as procurers, the public sector may be seeking to pay below commercial fees for contracts with the VCS. This is wrong, misguided and will lead to long term problems. The sector has to be ready to say 'no' to such contracts. Equally, organisations have to be ready to push back on contract terms and/or to say 'no' if the 'opportunities' being offered are at variance with their mission, would undermine their values, restrict their ability to innovate and be responsive to users, and/or diminish their independence.

Given the serious questions being posed currently about the ethics, standards and appropriateness of the large major outsourcers and business more generally, there is potential for the VCS and wider social sector to position themselves as the natural delivery partner of the public sector. They should be in a strong position to demonstrate the social value they add - though they will have to prove this and demonstrate that the public sector will fulfil its obligations under the Public Services Social Value Act through them (although, of course, they have no exclusivity or moral high ground on this). The public sector has to be persuaded to recognise this and to adopt collaborative approaches that enable the VCS and social sector to deliver public services or elements of them without having to go through cumbersome and ruinously expensive procurement processes designed for multi-national conglomerates.

The VCS may also find itself being courted by large business sector providers and others to partner with them in public service bids. In such situations, the response must be commercial, and values and mission led. The sector must learn the lessons from the Work Programme (and, I expect, from the rehabilitation/probation services contracts if the Government persists with the latter). It must be ready to know and extract its prize, or say 'no' to these courtiers.

The formal 'right to challenge' and the 'transfer of assets' legislation should offer major opportunities to the VCS in the coming years. Continuous dialogue and partnership with public sector commissioners, policy officials and politicians should identify opportunities and enable the VCS to shape services and potential contract opportunities.

The sector has to seek new forms of funding. This is not to argue for an end to public sector grants and realistic contract terms but there may be opportunities to use loan finance, crowd-funding and other less traditional forms of finance.

So what are the ten critical attributes and behaviours that the VCS has to adopt to ensure that it can thrive over the next few years:

• being bold, strategic and resilient leaders

• demonstrating a willingness to adopt change and to work in different ways with different funding streams whilst always remaining true to values, principles and mission

• being focused on beneficiaries and 'outcomes for beneficiaries'

• having the confidence to to challenge public policy and to advocate alternatives

• empowering beneficiaries to speak up, and to take control

• willing to collaborate with the public sector, within the VCS and wider social sector and, when the terms are right, with the business sector - both large and ideally smaller local firms

• being ready to offer outcome based solutions to the public sector and to others

• being exemplar employers and not expect staff to accept poor terms and conditions

• having excellent commercial, marketing and sales skills whilst not becoming commercial businesses

• looking forward and not back to some 'golden era' that was probably not so 'golden' in reality

The next few years are going to be very tough but the Voluntary and Community Sector has to be stronger than ever, despite shrinking resources. It needs to show how it can respond with agility to the needs of community whilst providing voice for communities. In doing this, it will need to show commitment and it will need to do things differently (and in some cases, very differently). It will also have to demonstrate that through its commitment to communities and beneficiaries rather than shareholders, it can add real sustainable social value.

I am confident that with the right leadership at local and national level, the sector can rise to these challenges - which is why I am optimistic for