Making Good – the Future of the Voluntary Sector

Making Good is a series of excellent essays from leaders of the voluntary sector, concerned about its future: it is frank about what the issues are and the possible consequences. Not idealistic on solutions, the book doesn’t underplay the depth of the challenges either. Caroline Slocock of Civil Exchange has done a great job editing and showcasing the ideas that must keep coming for the sector to survive.

More about Civil Exchange and Making Good here.

Civil Society magazine’s coverage of the launch focuses on not an essay but a contribution made at the launch – by Tom Levitt. Tom was not the only contributor that evening to mention the political context of the debate, but he did expand at length on why charities sometimes found it so difficult to get MPs to understand and back issues of concern to the whole sector.

Here’s the Civil Society piece:

Charity leaders need to educate MPs about the challenges facing the sector as a whole but should not waste their time doing so until after the election, a former chair of the all-party Parliamentary group on charities said yesterday.

Former Labour MP Tom Levitt was speaking at the launch of Making Good: The future of the voluntary sector, a book of more than 30 essays from senior sector leaders published by the think tank Civil Exchange.

Civil Society News has been serialising many of the essays as blogs over the last few weeks, in the run-up to the book’s official launch last night at the Baring Foundation, which supported the production of the essay collection.

The launch was marked by speeches from the book’s editor Caroline Slocock and two of the essayists, Kathy Evans, CEO of Children England, and Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind.  The debate was then opened up to the floor to allow the invited guests to pitch in their thoughts about the sector’s future.

Tom Levitt said the sector ought to be aware that MPs “know very very little about charities”.

“When a charity goes to talk to an MP, they go to talk about their cause, not about the sector and its role and issues,” Levitt said.  “And that’s quite right because that’s what they’re there to do.”

He said there are three main reasons why charities might find Parliamentarians hard to sway and why MPs can be sceptical of charities.

“One – we saw this in the 90s and we are seeing it again with the Lobbying Act – why should we give you money to campaign against us?

“Two – MPs spend years fighting within their own party to try and influence their party’s agenda, so why should they suddenly give a step up to someone else who wants to change their manifesto in a way that might not necessarily be in line with their own priorities?”

Third and most crucial, Levitt said, is the role of the sector within the MP’s own constituency.  Some of the most deprived wards have very low levels of social capital and simply don’t have the capacity, structure and skills to light the spark that will ignite effective voluntary action.

Levitt concluded: “For all of those reasons there’s a huge education job to be done on MPs and Parliamentarians – but don’t start it now, as they won’t listen for the next six months.”

Voluntary sector ‘can’t agree on anything’

Meanwhile, three relative newcomers to the voluntary sector offered less-than-glowing descriptions of what they found when they quit the public sector for the world of charities.

Dan Corry, chief executive of NPC, came to the voluntary sector three years ago after a career mostly spent in the public sector.  He said that on one hand he is always struck by how nervous the sector is, how it constantly feels it has to defend itself, as if it is so fragile it could break at any moment – while on the other hand it is “rather over-proud of how brilliant it is”.

“I find that very strange, it makes for some rather strange behaviours,” Corry said. “At NPC we work with literally hundreds of charities and funders and quite frankly there is almost no consensus in the sector about almost anything.”

Richard Jenkins, now policy adviser at the Association of Charitable Foundations, was formerly a civil servant in the Active Communities Directorate at the Home Office.  He said: “I have regular conversations with traumatised civil servants who moved to work with charities because they thought they were nice, and found themselves confronted by these huge egos and an enormous sense of entitlement.  They quickly hurried back to somewhere soft, like prisons.

“But I stayed and stuck it out…and for all of its shadow side this sector does have something really important, because we are mobilising something that can’t be priced.  And this thing, whatever it is, can make a huge difference to people’s lives and can form and mobilise democracy.  So I think we need to think much more clearly about what that is, and define it, in our own terms.”

Amanda Ariss from the Equality and Diversity Forum said she feels squeamish about the sector’s tendency to claim that it has values at its heart, because this implies that other sectors don’t.

“Most of the people I worked with in the public sector were driven by values – the minute we say that’s what makes us different then we are saying other people aren’t.  It’s not the right approach to try and monopolise that.  Also it exposes us, because there’s so much we could do better. I think on the whole some of the better practice in equality and human rights is in the private sector, not our sector.”

Sector is ‘naturally competitive’

Rob Macmillan from the Third Sector Research Centre at Birmingham University said he was struck by the “everyday ecologies of competition in the sector”.

“The story we get told is that we are naturally collaborative and all that makes us competitive is the nasty commissioning and funding environment.

“But I think this sector is a diverse, pluralistic, competitive space, always has been and always will be – competing for money, competing for people, competing for status and reputation around doing good.  And I wonder whether we ought to have this side of the story in here as well.”

Shrinking of civil space

Baring Foundation director David Cutler voiced his concern about the “huge crisis” that is engulfing civil society worldwide as government after government tries to close down NGOs’ voice and influence.  “This is not a slow retrenchment of civil space,” he warned.  “Fifty countries in the last two years have introduced repressive legislation towards NGOs.  That is not a slow shrinking, and there are many other signs too.”

He added that the resilience of the UK sector is very patchy; the advice sector for example has needed a lot of focused support recently to keep afloat.

Social enterprise virtually absent from essays

Steve Wyler, former CEO of Locality, said he found it intriguing that almost none of the authors mentioned social enterprise in their essays about the future of the sector.  If this exercise had been conducted five years ago, he said, he suspected that social enterprise would have had a much higher profile.

Caroline Slocock, the editor of the book and architect of the Making Good project, said she hoped that the publication of the book would be the start of a sector-wide debate about the sector’s role and voice in the future.