Making Good: The future of the voluntary sector

Late last year Civil Exchange and DHA, supported by Baring Foundation, published a collection of essays by voluntary sector leaders.

As the title suggests, Making Good: The future of the voluntary sector sets out visions of how and where the sector will contribute to society into the future.

Civil Exchange director Caroline Slocock edited the volume. Continuing the debate here, she provides an overview of a potential direction of travel for the voluntary sector and invites some essayists to comment on this vision.

Caroline Slocock, director, Civil Exchange
Making Good: the future of the voluntary sector includes fascinating and individual views from over 30 voluntary sector leaders about how the sector could evolve over the next decade. The backdrop includes reduced investment in public services and rising demand, increasing public disengagement with conventional politics, changes in public expectations and technology and threats to the independence of the voluntary sector itself, as recorded by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector.

There are many perspectives but, taken together, I think they point to a possible new direction for the voluntary sector.

First, there would be strong, collective and inclusive leadership on the issues that matter – a powerful, independent, and widely respected voice that speaks for local and community-based organisations just as effectively as national ones. The sector’s mission would be, ultimately, to put itself out of a job, by seeking to solve, not just alleviate, social problems. To this end, it would be empowering individuals and communities, and collaborating with other sectors, for the common good. Its ability to generate social capital and value beyond money through the passion and goodwill of its volunteers and donors would be seen as central and valued accordingly.

This distinctive contribution would be widely recognised by social partners, including the state, and funding and contracting regimes would be redesigned to support it. New funding would be found to support innovation and important local activity currently at risk. There would be a presumption of ‘local first’ in commissioning. The ability of the sector to co-design better public services would be regarded as just as important, if not more, as its capacity, in some cases, to deliver more effective public services on the ground. The voluntary sector would always be listening to those it serves, seeing itself as an ‘enabler’ and ‘changemaker,’ never simply responding to the agenda of those with more power. Finally, the independence of the sector would be upheld by others and asserted by itself.

Some elements of this may be controversial, even amongst the essayists themselves, but the aim is to spark off debate in the run up to the next election. What do others think?

Kathy Evans, chief executive, Children England
Caroline does a great job of identifying and summarising themes emerging from a diverse set of essays. In her suggestions for a new direction some important gauntlets are laid down to the voluntary sector – some of which I see being taken on with gusto already among my members (such as co-production), some others which perhaps warrant a little critical reflection.

One of the consistent reflections among essayists was the need to avoid homogeneous assumptions about the sector. When it spans everything from protest movements to housing managers, allotments and babysitting cooperatives to pro bono lawyers and disaster relief, I suspect that same warning should apply to singular aspirations for its future. Since the Scottish referendum let the devolutionary genie out of the bottle for the whole UK, it is hard to imagine a future democratic landscape looking much like today’s. National bodies (like my own of course) will be challenged to move away from our instinctive tendency towards ‘monolithic’ national visions, statements and policy solutions.

I worked many years in a charity that asked annually how it aimed to put itself out of business – a healthy discipline in any social justice mission. But what if your mission is to enrich life rather than to right its wrongs? We dismiss ‘softer’ missions and outcomes at our peril. I don’t want the tiny community arts charity on my street to put itself out of business; nor do I want it to charge fees to the children; nor do I want the state to take it over! They offer no solution for structural inequality, they are just something without which the social fabric would be poorer. I would gladly ‘go back to my knitting’ to help them stay around on their own terms – and I consider it kind of alchemy that I can!

Dan Corry, chief executive, NPC
The voluntary sector occupies the crucial sphere between state and the private, market-driven sector. It does many things including effective delivery of services, campaigning, advocacy. And it helps create a pluralism of voices, views and experiences that make our society richer and ultimately more democratic.

I agree that much of this comes at a very local level with community groups, small charities, and social enterprises all helping create that elusive but crucial glue of society: social capital. But I resist the ‘local first’ cry that Caroline has called for.

For me, it must be ‘beneficiary first’. Always.

Often, very often, it will be local groups that can do things best, and will add to local social capital as a welcome addition. But to extend some sort of special status to local groups because they are local is a grave mistake. Sometimes, bigger, non-local charities deliver better services. Fact. Local groups do not always contribute much to local capital, but can even be part of the problem. Frank conversations with local leaders soon makes this clear.

In any case, the sector does not need special treatment, but a fair deal and a fair run.

It’s a robust and resilient sector that needs to be more confident. At NPC we are looking for effective charities that really do turn voluntary income and action into effective outcomes. Striking special deals between charities and the state points in exactly the wrong direction. We should celebrate everything that our civil society brings to daily life, and support it when it is most effective; but we mustn’t be sucked into romantic myths that it is always best and can solve all our problems.

Danny Kruger, CEO, Only Connect
Caroline is right. For far too long, charities have assumed the position of the poor relation. The overriding view is of a sector often living hand-to-mouth, peripheral to the real business of public life. We collude in this by playing the game, by going to extreme lengths to show how little we pay our staff, our shabby offices, how low our spend on ‘overheads’ is. Already, simply by raising money to meet need, we are in a collusive relationship with the problems we want to fight.

Charities must assert their rights to be the expert on the issues that they face. The sector must claim the right to have an opinion and with this accept everything that comes with it; professionalism, accountability and integral evaluation of impact.

Most importantly, the traditional funding relationship must be disrupted – a difficult and frightening step into the dark for many charities. How do you rock your cosy fundraising relationship, tell your funder that they must ask a different question to the one on the funding applications: not “what is the problem you want to solve?” but “where is the opportunity you want to pursue?”

Adopting this approach is very hard, because the pressures to conform to the deficit model are intense. Every funding application that begins with the wrong question, every statutory initiative aiming to reduce this or that statistical indicator of social failure, starts you off on the wrong conversation with the your funders and with the people you are trying to help.

At Only Connect, we’ve developed the idea of ‘Handshake Not Handout’ – and believe in it so much so that we’ve trademarked the term. This is a new funding relationship centered on co-design and delivery of projects and services, placing funders, charities and service users on an equal footing. It disrupts the traditional top down, ‘handout’ funding model and focuses on a businesslike ‘handshake’ relationship between all parties. When charities are recognised for their expertise, when we see our clients as colleagues in the maximisation of social value, then finally wider society might invite us to take more responsibility for managing our common civic life.

Making Good: the future of the voluntary sector can be accessed here.

Charity Times welcomes contributions to the discussion, feel free to email your thoughts to the editor at

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