How Rob Wilson views the sector: singing the refrain

If you’re a voluntary sector fan, you’ll probably have seen Rob Wilson’s comment piece in Third Sector magazine by now (summarised in Civil Society if you get stuck behind the paywall). Described by some as interesting, others as insightful, and by one newsletter compiler as full of good lols, there’s certainly a lot to get one’s teeth into. So here goes.

The relationships thing

Mr Wilson talks a lot about the attitudes of charities to his and the Government’s work. He says it didn’t matter to him that charities ‘might not be naturally sympathetic’, and that there was significant mistrust as he took the helm from Brooks Newmark. He was disappointed at what he characterises as ‘group think’ mentality, with a lack of ‘ideas that challenge orthodox sectoral thinking’. He advises charities to ‘get closer’ to the Conservative Party, to ‘get involved, help shape policy development and be open minded’ about the Party’s views of how things should be delivered.

He also states ‘I liked and respected the people I met from the sector, who often sat around my office table and gave me their views.’ There is, however, a serious question about who these people were, and what organisations they represented. Some top digging by Kirsty Weakly of Civil Society magazine revealed that, for instance, Wilson did not meet independently with Charity Finance Group, Charities Aid Foundation or Small Charities Coalition at all in 2016, although there was a single joint meeting on Brexit between the Minister and 11 organisations/groups, including these three. There were, of course, meetings with other charities on subjects like fundraising regulation and young people’s volunteering, but these representative bodies are specialists in cross-sector issues, with access to a membership and a duty to represent their members’ views. If they’re not allowed around the table, it is difficult to see how they can make their voices heard, dissenting or otherwise.

There is, of course, a broader point about campaigning here. There is a contradiction between Mr Wilson’s proclaimed desire to see an independent voluntary sector, and his dissatisfaction with what they’re saying. On non-sector specific issues, my experience working on social care and benefits policy was that Government had very little interest in listening to the negative impact that bad policy will have on people’s lives – even where technical issues mean the policy is unworkable. Last week’s poor response to Lord Hodgson’s recommendations on the Lobbying Act might be one sectoral example. Having a ‘relationship’ with the incumbent government doesn’t and mustn’t mean failing to challenge them on these issues. Characterising challenge as failing to have an ‘open mind’ or as ‘group think’ (by the way we’ve been told for years that Ministers like to have a single point of contact with a well-organised and articulated platform so…) seeks to de-legitimise such efforts. This needs to be challenged itself.

The funding thing

Among Wilson’s three pieces of advice is the strong statement: ‘what matters is creating new funding sources.’ This is framed in terms of long-term stretched public funds, increased independence for the sector, removing the burden from tax-payers and the need to build reputation and robust regulation, presumably so people feel more comfortable giving. Wilson seems sad that his attempts to create ‘a multibillion-pound, long-term flow of funding’, and in turn his vision of ‘a generous country and an innovative government working closely with an open-minded, well-regulated and efficient sector’ has not been celebrated by the voluntary sector.

Sector people will be quick to point out that fashionable funding practices promoted by government as new sustainable and appropriate forms  – payment by results, social impact bonds, the dominance of contracts over grants – are problematic. As Nick Davies, formerly of NCVO, now of Institute for Government tweeted in response to the former Minister’s call for a focus on funding:

He goes onto point out that, in fact, charities have done lots of work diversifying their income base and improving their balance sheets:

Government funding from things like the Libor fines has been doled out to certain selected charities, but this does not equate, in my mind at least, to sustainable, innovative or needs-driven funding. Indeed, the Libor scheme has come under fire for failing to be transparent in the way in which funds are awarded, and for not monitoring impact.  Likewise there have been questions raised about the Dormant Assets Fund; a substantial amount has been transferred to the Big Lottery Fund, some more to Big Society Capital, but a lot is still waiting to be spent.

There has been a certain amount of noise from the Department about trying to improve funding arrangements so that small and medium-sized charities are better able to compete for contracts, but comparatively little action or engagement with the sector. And so it continues to struggle, often unable to engage with social investment, compete with large charities and businesses, and battling what Lloyds Bank Foundation calls a ‘capacity crunch’. Small Charities Coalition’s submission to the Lords Select Committee on Charities Inquiry last year has more detail on these issues.

And finally, nailing my colours to the mast, I’m a firm believer that there are some things that the state should fund. Public services, an adequate and compassionate welfare safety-net, roads and rails, research (thanks again, ESRC). But also the sort of infrastructure that means voluntary organisations are able to function and improve; core costs, capacity building, actual buildings, volunteer management. All of these things are difficult to fundraise for, either from public, trust or government sources. Market solutions are not appropriate solutions for these kinds of fields. But these things benefit public services and local communities. There is room for improvement, innovation and change, sure, but those things also cost. It’s easy enough to say creating new funding streams is the one big strategic issue for the voluntary sector (not that I agree), but if you take that attitude you have to be realistic, intelligent and nuanced about exactly what that looks like for a full range of essential voluntary services, and think about the full range of funding approaches necessary. Take a look at Grants for Good for more on why, for instance, grants are good.

The framing thing

During recent budgets there has been a narrative from some sector representatives of ‘no news is good news’ – it doesn’t matter that the sector isn’t mentioned in key economic and policy speeches. It doesn’t mean Government doesn’t care. Mentions don’t equate to action. Well, that last one’s sometimes true, but where the noise from MPs and ministers (even ex-ones), is either a shut door or a public shaming this kind of framing, or lack thereof, really does matter. Wilson himself says that the ‘third’ sector is not a priority for Government. Where there is rhetoric about the role of civil society, it is left up to civil society organisations to organise and promote themselves within marketised spaces, following rules of the game that are influenced by current discourses, including those from the state.

Lots of ground about Wilson’s framing choices has already been covered here – the sector is characterised as in need of greater financial independence, greater transparency and a more open mind regarding policy approaches. Diverse income bases and transparent governance are both important things practically, but there is also a convenience for governments who may want to divest themselves of fiscal responsibility, and de-legitimise voices of dissent through onerous or unrealistic standards. There may be benefits to charities of being viewed as ‘transparent’, ‘accountable’ and ‘professional’, but these are values that shouldn’t be seen as separate from the economic context in which they are embedded. I do not view the sector as straightforwardly a ‘victim’ or co-conspirator in neo-liberalism, as some do – I think there are more complicated mechanisms at play – but I do think this framing deserves some scrutiny.

So what’s next?

It’s tempting to say ‘more of the same’ at this point, especially given the lack of room for anything non-Brexit. I know lots of good people are doing lots of good work behind the scenes and in front of the curtain trying to work with Government on charity policy, but I am less convinced than Mr Wilson that Government is prepared to listen. In other policy areas, perhaps there is more chance for engagement, and there are always different approaches to be made, both quiet and loud. And regardless of whether anyone’s listening, I’m of the firm opinion that we should always keep talking, because good messages can provide a counter-frame themselves.

From a research point of view I always like seeing new, robust and relevant explorations of discourse versus practice (which is not necessarily to say the two don’t marry up) but they can be hard to do in real time. Angela Ellis-Paine and Rob Macmillan’s work is an example I’m particularly excited about though. I hope to do more, albeit historically, myself.

Tracey Crouch MP, the new(ish) Minister, hopefully has a few years to work on sector issues, alongside other aspects of her brief. She recently launched the second ‘local charities day’, there’s likely to be much more on young people’s volunteering, and she has pledged to help the sector ‘understand’ the Lobbying Act – so far, so consistent, although there’s a suggestion that she’s frustrated with her senior colleagues over that last one. It will be interesting whether there is room or appetite for change as the administration continues.


Local community action: Birmingham Community Matters

As it’s the very last day of Volunteers’ Week 2017 today, I thought I’d share my experience of one of the bits of volunteering I’ve picked up since moving to Birmingham (I’ll tell you about all the others another time, no doubt).

Birmingham Community Matters is a ‘surgery’ style event held in different venues across Birmingham, which is run by a group of people including, among others, top community organiser Ridhi Kalaria (who has made me feel really welcome, and who has great chat about local networks – so thanks Ridhi). Today’s was at Billesley Ark, home to Malachi Family Centre: a community interest company originally founded on Christian principles, but now operating on a non-denominational basis to help whoever needs support in a ward that has some challenges (but some great assets too). It’s a fab, bright place full of enthusiastic volunteers, willing to support projects that come from the community to support the people living there – a good example of a community hub, something you hear a lot about in Birmingham, and something I might write about later. Others have been at Stirchley Baths, Ort Café, Erdington Welcome Centre, and next week’s is at Soho House. It’s a good way of getting to know bits of the city, for sure.

The surgery itself brings together lots of volunteers who think they have something to offer, some expertise or are just willing to have a chat with people who need help and advice running their own group, getting an idea off the ground or generally making their communities better. If you come looking for advice you’ll get ‘triaged’ (essentially you’ll have a quick chat about what you need help with) then joined up with someone who can offer that help. I’ve talked to people about how to get more volunteers involved and organise workloads, what different legal forms of organisation there are (still learning that one), and about really new ideas that are just starting to form – giving an outside perspective, some pointers, links and encouragement. Today I talked to someone who had identified a gap in services, and wanted to do something about it. They had all the passion, frustration and great ideas they needed, but an event like Birmingham Community Matters gave them the headspace and sounding board to start getting all that organised into the makings of a plan. I wish them all the luck in the world, and I hope I was of some use.

From a volunteer perspective it’s really minimal commitment. You can sign up to as many or as few sessions as you like – they’re usually a couple of hours in the morning or evening at an ever-increasing range of venues – and you’re just there for that time. There’s no commitment to do anything or take anything on outside of the events, although I’m naturally super keen to hear about how people and groups get on. In my view it complements and extends other forms of voluntary sector infrastructure in the city; as a model its strength is in its flexibility; it can get around to local communities and meet with very small groups, even single people with good ideas, and start conversations, plans, developments and partnerships going. It can also bring in partners to provide opportunities for networking and promoting opportunities; today there were people from the City Council who are responsible for building partnerships, networks and neighbourhoods, a Sergeant from Billesley Police, building links with local groups, and others from more established charities looking to join up their work with others. And if you’re interested in getting to know your local sector (in its widest sense) in its geographical context, and if you’re interested in seeing that process of people starting to take action and build groups and better communities – well it’s just my own research nerd heaven.

So, I’ll be back for another next week, and hopefully will be of some use. I hope you’ve all had a lovely Volunteers’ Week 2017, and a chance to reflect on and celebrate all the great work volunteers do.

Campaigning with privilege: we need to start listening

This is a blog about disability,* so I’ll start it by saying I don’t have a disability. I have layers of privilege that come with being non-disabled, and not having to fight at every turn against a society that does not understand, and often does not try to understand, what it’s like to live and work with a disability. I have learnt a lot from some campaigners who are disabled and who are carers for disabled people about that fight. I have been privileged to work with them and to learn from them, even though it’s not their responsibility to school me.

I’m writing this in response to a couple of things. Firstly, I’m currently meant to be writing an essay on power, which has made me think a lot about access; if you’ve worked in policy and public affairs you’ll know that some organisations and groups seem to get more access than others, and some issues will get further than others. It can be a struggle in a crowded market place to get your item on the agenda. Resources, relationship-building, history, timing and a myriad of other factors can make it possible, but there are structural societal barriers that make it more difficult for certain groups to make their voices heard. The voluntary sector has a key role in representing and amplifying the voice of groups, but itself works within this system, and organisations have to make sure they’re representing their particular interest group to the best of their ability. Competition for political clout among charities is an interesting if sometimes uncomfortable topic, and one I might come back to in a more academic moment.

Secondly, and more practically, I’ve been reflecting on some stuff I’ve heard about and seen when working with fellow campaigners, about the things that conspire to tilt the playing field against them (one campaigner described it as ‘sloping uphill’). Things like the extra costs of getting around – usually by taxi, often by black cab, and often with a battle to get any money back. If you’re in a professional role, Access to Work doesn’t always cover the cost of travel to meetings, and you have to pay upfront. I’ve heard one story about a disabled person fighting for months to claim taxi expenses back having been asked to sit on a patient representative group, because the internal procurement processes were so complicated. It costs a lot to live in this country if you have a disability – on average £550 extra per month – so the hidden costs of being a disabled campaigner can be prohibitive. When you’re constantly worried about your benefits being cut, it can be doubly difficult to balance those costs.**

Then there is the issue of accessibility. Last year the Houses of Parliament won an award for its ‘outstanding disability performance and commitment to disabled people’, which some of my pals found pretty funny (in a really not-funny sort of way). I will say I’ve met some lovely and supportive staff at Parliament. But I have also been with campaigners who have had their disabilities questioned by parliamentary staff because they don’t have an immediately obvious disability (they need hardware for proof, apparently). I have walked the ‘accessible’ route with a colleague with mobility problems – you have to go round behind the bins, it takes bloody ages, and you’re not allowed to sit down and rest because of security issues, which all makes it rather inaccessible. I know of times when people haven’t been able to attend events or debates because the room isn’t accessible or the classic ‘the lift is broken’ situation, and you wouldn’t believe the battles involved in finding accessible meeting spaces (unless you’re disabled or a carer or an organiser, in which case you probably will). I have heard about the impact of not being able to get to meetings, debriefs, photo calls, all those networking chats that happen over coffee because it takes so much longer for your security escort to show up, for you to get around, and because other people don’t make the time. I’ve had to be told about the fact that sometimes it involves a lot of extra physical and psychologic effort to engage, not least if you’re having to explain your disability all the time, which means people might not be able to engage for as long, or in the same physical space, or using the same methods. I’ve also recognised how often I or others haven’t taken this into account.

I write this as an ally, because I think it’s important for allies to write. It’s more important for us to listen, to do things differently and to make sure things change. People should not have to battle at every single stage for even the opportunity to be listened to. But they do, and they’ve been doing it for too long.

*This is actually a blog about some types of disability – predominantly physical. Campaigners with learning disabilities and mental ill health may share some experiences or may have unique ones, good and bad. I don’t know enough about it though, and I don’t intend to guess. Would love to hear from people who want to share though.

**I’m also very cross about PIP today. Again.

I wrote this blog with the permission of the people who’s examples I’ve used, but I don’t want to speak for them, or any other disabled people. If you’d like to share your own campaign experiences, or to challenge or add, please feel free to do so.

The Aves Report: the old debate on volunteering and public services

This month I have mostly been reading The Voluntary Worker in the Social Services, known as the Aves Report. It was named after Geraldine Aves who chaired the Committee on the nature of volunteering in this developing public sector field, set up in 1966 and reporting in 1968. If you’re an avid voluntary sector fan like me, you might have noticed this age-old debate has popped back into the narrative over the past month or so, prompted by a letter from NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington. Ill-disguised historian that I am, I thought it was a good time to think about what it looked like in the olden days. (It’s another long read – sorry.)

What was going on in the 1960s?

Aside from the Beatles and naughty spies and all that boring stuff, there was also a significant re-examination of the nature of social work, its organisation and the role of local government in providing it. Conversations about a multi-layered conception of social work, encompassing neighbourhood-level community work as well as case and group work, played out across reports, committees and organisations like the Younghusband Report on social workers’ roles and training (1959 – I’m cheating), Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s report Community Work and Social Change (1968) and the Seebohm Committee report on local authorities and allied personal social services (1968). This one recommended that local authorities start to take a much larger degree of responsibility for social services, proposing the creation of specific local government departments. Government was also experimenting with longish-term, community-based projects like the Urban Programme (1968) and the Community Development Project (1968) in poor neighbourhoods and areas where recent immigration had brought with it perceived changes and tensions in local places. Voluntary organisations and volunteers ran like a thread through these programmes and debates, and at the same time new voluntary organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG – 1965) and Shelter (1966) were being formed as the country ‘rediscovered’ poverty and thought they’d better do something about it.

The Aves report on the role of volunteers in personal social services at a point where there was a sense that things needed to change. As the report itself says:

Social services had become more comprehensive and more complex than ever before, and there was increasing realization of the part that they needed to play. The aims of the services were becoming more explicit; their limitations as well as their potentialities were more clearly realized… it had become apparent that only by the intelligent mobilization of every resource could society hope to realise its aspirations to meet a very wide range of human needs.

So what does it say about volunteers?

The report includes some great material on volunteer roles, frustrations, relationships with social workers and views on the support they got (or lack thereof). There’s a real sense of celebration of the role volunteers played, including their relative freedom compared to bureaucratic services, a perceived stronger focus on individuals and human needs, and the ability to offer continuity where an individual might encounter a wide range of different professionals. It is not without criticism; things like ‘’friendly’ visiting’ comes under fire where it exists without any real purpose and without adequate support from organisations, and there’s a powerful reflection from a disabled person who feels they are a ‘captive audience’, obliged to keep up conversation with their volunteer visitor. There is plenty in there, both good and bad, that will be familiar to anyone who’s volunteered or worked with volunteers.

There are also some key themes about the nature and role of volunteering in relation to the state, which is what I’m most interested in:

  • The report is absolutely clear that volunteers should not be used to replace services, and should not be expected to do jobs where normally somebody would be paid. Voluntary workers, it says, ‘should be seen as part of an overall social work plan, not as a stop-gap for lack of trained workers’. Volunteers should complement, expand and extend the work done by professional social workers and services. It isn’t prescriptive about what volunteers should and shouldn’t do, but does make a call for clearer policy and role definitions in different service areas.
  • The report doesn’t talk about prevention. Obviously it is written at a time where this is not really on the agenda in the way it is now, but nevertheless there is no question that the people receiving help from volunteers need that help. There is no idea of preventing people from needing to use services, but rather volunteers are described as reducing loneliness, providing an ‘outside world’ perspective to people in hospitals or other institutions, befriending, being a conduit for service-user involvement and so on.
  • The Committee talked to different government departments about their views on volunteering. Some departments were more engaged than others, but it generally found that there wasn’t a great understanding, and that departments would talk about volunteers and voluntary organisations interchangeably. The report recommends establishing a national volunteer ‘foundation’; Government took them up on this, setting up the national-level Volunteer Centre (and the Voluntary Services Unit too).
  • There’s a serious tension between public services recognising the potential value of volunteering as part of service delivery, and having the resources and skills to make it a reality, particularly at a time when belts were tightening. In the report’s words, ‘the feeling was that voluntary workers could be very useful of only we had time to cope with them.’ There is lots of discussion about potential solutions to this problem, but throughout there is a recognition that the only way to increase volunteering is to invest in roles and services for recruiting and supporting them.
  • Volunteer bureaux weren’t such a big thing at this time. Councils for Voluntary Service and Settlements were well-established and had important roles in recruiting and supporting volunteers, as did other service-focussed organisations, but there were only a handful of organisations dedicated to advising and advertising to people who wanted to volunteer. The report calls for a much more comprehensive network. Noting the reluctance of the general public to donate to cover admin costs, it argues this should be funded by local and/or national government, given they will reap the rewards of having local organisations in place to organise volunteer recruitment, training and management.

How does this match up with debates going on today?

Well, it’s a very different narrative. It’s the perception of the purpose of volunteering that’s important here; for Aves it is clearly about complementing and extending, whereas in much of Sir Stuart et al.’s writing it is about preventing recourse to the state – an idea with a much longer lineage. This isn’t all that surprising; Aves comes after 20 years of the state as prime deliverer (broadly speaking), whereas Stu’s speaking after 20 years of New Public Management (likewise). The policy and rhetorical environment is different, as is the dominant ideology. Sir Stuart criticises people who take an ‘ideological’ position against government cuts, but his own is far from ideologically neutral (and neither is that of Aves, or mine). It says something about how far the conversation has developed and how far these concepts have been normalised that this is being presented as an inevitable path (or even, however tongue-in-cheek, as the only thing standing between us and our new robot overlords). I think we need to view this much more critically, and be careful with how we frame things like what volunteers do, what service users want and need, and the social care crisis within the conversation – which after all is affecting lots of voluntary organisations, whose business models are becoming unsustainable or whose beneficiaries are losing the services they need. I also think we need to talk to people who’ve been at the hard end of this, because ‘more volunteering’ is never going to be a remedy to the social harm inflicted by recent policy.

It is nevertheless striking how much of what’s in the Aves report resonates today. In my personal experience being a volunteer and working with them, the complaints of 1968 are still often complaints today (although I have been privileged enough to always volunteer for fantastic organisations who support me exceptionally well). So are many descriptions of the value of volunteering, and both pieces make the point that volunteering carries costs. Etherington says ‘it is time for the sector to renew its commitment to volunteering’. I’m not sure the sector ever disavowed itself, but it is worth considering why some of the same battles are going on, what new ones are being fought, and how we can keep on fighting in the right places.

I’m still exploring some of these issues – would appreciate any challenges, contradictions or other comments!

A long post on a little campaign with a big roar

I really enjoyed Andrew Purkis’ blog last week showcasing the power of charity campaigning with a great example from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (now Action on Hearing Loss – love their rebrand by the way). I liked the framing of the campaign within an idea of partnership between charity and government, with a view to creating meaningful change. And as a former Policy Officer with a large-ish charity, and a general fan of the democratic and expert role that the voluntary sector can and should play, I definitely support the message that we need to be standing up for this campaigning role.

Purkis’ point is, rightly, to defend the big charity, so often a focal point for criticism, and its role in campaigning. The example is of a large charity, with, as Purkis puts it, its concentrated passion, deep knowledge of user experience, 300,000 supporters and diversified funding base, professional staff and expert allies, long term staying power and its status as ‘a great national charity’. In the spirit of sharing good stories I’d like to add in an example from the other end of the spectrum to show how diverse the campaigning field can be, and how powerful. As a sector, indeed as a bunch of people, I think we can sometimes feel that successful campaigning can’t be done unless you’re one of the big guys. Likewise I think small charities and groups can sometimes get pigeon-holed as mutual aid, shared interest or hobby groups (all of which exist and are great, obviously), ignoring the fact that they can also be an incredible force for driving change. IC Change is a great example of doing just that.

I can’t remember exactly how I got involved in IC Change (although I think wine was involved). A friend, Robyn Boosey, had set up the campaign with two other amazing women, Rebecca Bunce and Rachel Nye, in 2014. The idea was to get Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women and domestic violence. The UK signed the Convention in 2012, but has been dragging its feet on ratification, meaning the protections it promises aren’t yet written into law. These three women didn’t think this was good enough, and decided to do something about it. They started to build partnerships with women’s organisations across the UK, write letters to ministers, and even sent some birthday treats – cards and retro mix tapes – to the Home Office. And they roped all of their friends in to help – I started by glancing at a couple of policy submissions for them and ended running social media. They had to because they were all volunteers – the three of them all have day jobs and have funded these activities almost exclusively from their own pockets. I’ll rudely speak for everyone, I think we were happy to volunteer because, as much as it is a cause we all care about, they are fantastic, passionate leaders who leave you believing you really can make a difference.

Then an SNP MP called Eilidh Whiteford got the chance to create a Private Members Bill, and decided to bring one on the Istanbul Convention. This was an incredible opportunity to get Government to step up and into action. We had lots of things on our side; we had cross-party support, we had a great team of volunteers doing graphics, photography, campaign materials, policy, social media, press work and more, we knew the Government was interested in tackling violence against women and we had those partnerships the three Rs had spent two years building up. What we needed was 100 MPs to come to the Bill debate, in order to stop it getting talked out (as so often happens with PMBs). The partnership kept growing and so did our supporter numbers. The Women’s Aid organisations across the UK were on board early on, as were Sisters of Frida, Southall Black Sisters and others. During the build-up to the PMB there was support from the Women’s Institute, Girlguiding UK, Fawcett Society, EHRC and the Women’s Equality Party, among many others (plus Emma Watson. Which was amazing.) WEP was able to mobilise a national network of party members, alongside our existing supporters, to hassle their MPs to turn up to the 2nd reading and vote in favour of the Bill which made a huge difference. On the day 137 MPs showed up, which meant a vote could be called, which meant the Bill passed through to Committee Stage, where it is now. This is a huge win. Once it’s finished we hope the Act will provide a timetable for ratification, and an annual reporting requirement on ending violence against women.

So, what made this one work, and what can we learn from it? I’ve touched on some of these already, but they’re worth looking at a bit more. So here goes.

  • We took advantage of a policy window… Just to put my MA learnin’ to use, this was a good example of an identifiable problem, a policy solution and a favourable political context coming together to open a policy window. Violence against women costs the state £15.8 billion a year in services and lost productivity – there’s your problem. The Istanbul Convention offers a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women; the Government signed this four and a half years ago so it’s one they are on board with (they’d just gotten stuck…). And the positive political environment came courtesy of cross-party support, profile in the media, probably a sympathetic Prime Minister and, crucially, from us in civil society.
  • …but we were a key part of creating that window. Us, our volunteers and supporters, our partners, faith groups – civil society made a huge noise about why Government needed to get moving on this. We helped create a political context where Government would have faced significant criticism from inside and outside their own party had they not made some kind of commitment, by raising the profile of the Convention and the Bill in the media and among MPs. This didn’t happen overnight; it took two years and many Parliamentary Questions before we started to see a shift, but see a shift we did.
  • You don’t need loads of money to make change… One of my worries with this campaign was that we didn’t have handy tech tools like Engaging Networks which can make contacting supporters so much easier. Actually it didn’t matter at all. We emailed our supporters, our partners emailed theirs, we tweeted and facebooked endlessly and it all got results. We don’t know how many people contacted their MPs. We do know that they changed MPs minds, raised their awareness and made them as passionate as they were about this cause.
  • …but a little bit helps. We had a couple of pub quizzes to raise a little bit of money, and a lot came out of the pockets of the three. We had to pay, collectively or individually, for tea and coffee in the House of Lords, t-shirts for supporters, printing of briefings, posters and signs, banners (which I accidentally broke), train fares and so on. The point is there are some costs, which do add up, and which you don’t always think about. I would love to see more trusts offering small grants programme for community activism (community in the place and people sense) to make it easier for more people to do this kind of thing – whether or not they get what they’re campaigning for – because it’s such a great way to play an active part in democracy (Lush actually already has a pot for this. If you know of any others let me know!).
  • Social media is amazing. Although it takes a huge amount of coordination – by the last two weeks I was working full-time on it (sorry, PhD supervisors…). We did face some criticism from an MP that we were just encouraging ‘clicktivism’ and failing to engage in real activism. I think we need to be careful not to overstate the role of social media, and with this campaign there was a lot of other work going on behind the scenes. But we also have to be really careful not to dismiss it. Our online campaigners were amazing and we saw MPs change their minds in real-time after a good amount of twitter engagement. MPs tweeting their support meant other MPs saw it and supported in turn. It brought more campaigners on board who started to feel encouraged that they could get their MP to commit too. And I’ll never forget the moment Emma Watson retweeted a bunch of the campaign tweets and my tweetdeck went into total meltdown. Crumbs. A fairly cheap Facebook ad also helped bring us a good chunk of new ‘likes’, as did an amazing post by someone who actually wasn’t directly involved in the campaign but was really on board with the message – Susie’s post got shared hundreds of times with completely new audiences. Finally, it’s one form of campaigning among many, but one that’s open to some people who can’t engage in IRL forms of activism; some of our brilliant volunteers have disabilities, some people who want to campaign have kids or complicated lives, which means they can find it difficult to go door-knocking or attend meetings or have long days set in the diary. If they have access to the internet, then it’s another way to engage.
  • Volunteers are amazing. Most of this campaign was done entirely on volunteer power, and credit to Robyn, Rachel and Rebecca who managed us all brilliantly. It was an incredibly intense campaign but there were always opportunities to take a break, to check in, to self-care. We always made sure we thanked people for the time and effort they were giving, whether in real life or on social media, which kept them posting, following, sharing and writing to their MPs.

This campaign does have a little way to go – the Bill still needs to get through the rest of the parliamentary process, and then we need a bit more legislation before the Istanbul Convention is finally ratified. And, of course, then we need to make sure Government delivers on prevention, protection and prosecution requirements. But we’ve got a huge step closer. Small, informal, unregistered volunteer groups can be powerful agents for change, just like the big folk. I’m proud to have been a part of this one.

If you want to see some of the action, check out the Storify from the Istanbul Convention Bill’s 2nd reading here.

Identity crisis: defining voluntary action

I’ve noticed that when I tell people I’m researching the voluntary sector, people tend to tell me what’s wrong with the voluntary sector. Whether it’s that charities are corrupt and wasting their money on things like talking to government or paying inflated chief executive salaries, or that they’re enabling the advance of the neoliberal agenda by delivering services for the state, I spend a surprising amount of time defending them.

Many of the criticisms are valid, and hopefully I’ll get round to unpicking some of them in future musings, but lots also come from different understandings of what charities are, what they do (or what they should do) and what part voluntary action plays in society.

These are questions that has preoccupied Government, charities, academia, the press and the public for at least 400 years (the Charitable Uses Act of 1597 was the first attempt to regulate charities, history fans*). If you even spend a little bit of time reading research articles or policy documents about the voluntary sector you’ll notice that a lot of them start with a ‘what is the voluntary sector?’ section. Message me if you want references – I’m doing *all* the reading right now for my MA.

But how do voluntary organisations think about themselves and the work they do? Well, the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities gives us a convenient opportunity to find out. 172 organisations and individuals submitted evidence to the Committee’s inquiry into the sustainability of the charity sector and challenges of charity governance, which opened with the question: ‘What is the role and purpose of charities in civic society in England and Wales?’. In total, 86 submissions penned an answer, and I read ’em all. Here’s what they said:

The ‘sector’ is a diverse place

Lots of organisations cautioned the Committee against talking about charities and the voluntary sector as one homogenous group. Charities and voluntary groups are described as diverse in terms of size, mission type and legal form. Some object to the use of the label ‘charity’ because it refers to a specific legal form and, in their view, excludes the full range of community groups and small or micro organisations that are part of voluntary action. A minority feel that large charities, or even legally defined charities, dominate conversations and resources at the expense of small, grass roots organisations.

Some others talk about diversity in terms of challenges faced, and feel that too narrow a definition of ‘charities’ – one that sees the very large and very small as one thing – can lead to serious policy problems (onerous reporting requirements or one-size-fits-all funding arrangements) and public relations problems (where all charities or groups are blamed for the sins of one).

Mission defines

According to a significant number of respondents, the one defining feature that charities, voluntary organisations and grass roots groups all share is ‘a passion for delivering their mission’. Their purpose is to make a difference to the lives of their beneficiaries, to solve a social problem through innovation, or to fill a gap where support is otherwise not available. They can provide a service or help to represent people and campaign on their behalf. This is done by bringing people with a shared interest together, by working in partnership and often by being closer to the communities they seek to represent than statutory or private organisations. ‘Local’ and ‘community’ comes up time and time again in relation to delivering organisations’ missions. So do concepts of independence, flexibility and empowerment. (This is close to what Salamon and Anheier call a ‘functional’ definition, which sees organisations defined according to operating in the public interest or with a common purpose – they discuss the pros and cons of this on p.37, if you’re interested.)

Organisations are worried about what ‘increased service delivery’ means

There are 120 references to service delivery across the submissions, which makes it one of the most popular topics. Lots are positive: they talk about the value the voluntary sector can add to services, about services delivered because of a gap in state provision and about the ability of the sector to deliver high-quality, innovative services without a profit motive that change the lives of their beneficiaries. Some talk about the importance of partnership working between different sectors in this arena too. Interestingly, fewer talk about charities’ campaigning role, although it is still an important feature for many.

However, lots of others talk about the problems of increased service delivery. Some identify an increased pressure to fill larger gaps in state provision or to deliver services to a higher volume of people. One charitably calls this the increasing ‘reliance of the state on voluntary action’. A few more call it the ‘rolling back of the state’ or the result of statutory sector funding cuts. This has brought, in the views of some, problems in terms of the capacity and capability either to deliver services, or to secure realistic contracts to do so in the first place. Many talk about funding problems: more people are looking to charities for help as a result of this statutory roll-back, but in their experience funding streams have reduced. A move from grant funding to contracts, and an increase in charities taking up those contracts, has brought a perceived increase in risk, reduction in charity partnership working and a restriction in independence and ability to speak out. More than one submission refers to increasingly blurred boundaries between sectors, and there is a clear belief that this has worsened since the Coalition Government came to power.

It should be noted that not every submission talks about contract delivery as inherently problematic, and many describe the benefits of voluntary organisations delivering services on behalf of the state. There is by no means a consistent view on this issue, but almost everyone seems to have one.

But distinction is still important

The Committee asked about what makes the sector distinct, and voluntary organisations are very clear in their responses that they are not businesses or the state. They are not for profit, not commercial, not as limited or inflexible as the state and better placed to drive social change than commercial enterprises. Social value rather than financial, for the benefit of the community, is key. It is crucially important to them that they remain independent. Those that talk about blurred boundaries argue that distinction should be preserved, although some talk about the perceived focus on finance rather than mission moving charities closer to looking like a business. This is a view one hears expressed often, and it’s important to explore exactly why we think this distinction is important. I think it’s equally important to make a distinction between professionalisation and marketisation, but that’s a whole other bit of research on my to-do list.

There is a lot of rich material in these submissions, with plenty of contradiction, enthusiasm and unease mixed in. I’ve tried to give a flavour here but I’m (always) happy to talk more. One of the take-aways for me is that plenty of charities and voluntary organisations are just as worried about taking on greater roles in service delivery and about issues of transparency as the people I speak to. There is a significant level of dispute and contention in the collected responses, particularly around service delivery but also in terms of diversity and ‘sector’ definitions, which suggests that I’m going to keep having these conversations for some time to come.

*I know virtually nothing about anything pre-1869, so I suggest you read Justin Davis Smith’s chapter on philanthropy and self-help in Britain 1500-1945 if you’re really a history fan. Or if you’re just a simple voluntary sector fan, the whole book.

Never gonna give you up: the perpetual courtship of central government and the voluntary sector

Last week the Government announced that it will create a new policy unit to ‘improve relations with charities, faith organisations and businesses’, based at Number 10. Details have yet to emerge on exactly what this means, but the sector seem fairly optimistic about its prospects, and its potential for ‘resetting the relationship’ between Government and the sector.

For nerds like me it’s exciting, because it is yet another in a long line of offices and units established to improve the sector-state relationship. It gives us an excuse to look back to previous incarnations and think about what, if anything, they achieved, and to imagine where this one might take this sometimes tortuous relationship.

As with so much else, my interest begins in the 1970s with the establishment under the Conservative Government of the Voluntary Services Unit (VSU) in 1972. The Wolfenden Committee report on the future of voluntary organisations (1978) describes its four main functions: acting as a link between voluntary organisations and government departments, providing a focal point for Whitehall when troubled with voluntary sector issues, encouraging cooperation between voluntary organisations and acting as a ‘financier of last resort’ or a funder of ‘innovatory’ projects in areas of high social need.

This is a wide brief, although in practice there is limited information available about the day-to-day operations and ways of working of the Unit. This is in part because the various government departments involved appear to be juggling the historical data between them; my latest FOI came back with the news that, while some of the files had been sent to the Department for Communities and Local Government, others were still in the Home Office, and neither party knew who had what. I guess I will just have to wait.

My data woes aside, there are some interesting comments in contemporary literature and historical analysis of the Unit. The Wolfenden Committee very much welcomed the establishment of the VSU, but recognised some of its challenges:

We know that its officers are, so to speak, walking several tight-ropes at once. They must not dictate to the voluntary sector: yet each of their decisions will be taken as an indication of official policy. They must not lay down hard-and-fast criteria for their support of the voluntary sector: yet they cannot support an indiscriminate free-for-all.

The final tension, around which bits of the voluntary sector should get support, is interesting in terms of debates around the control and influence of Government over the sector. Stephen Hatch, writing in 1980, attributes the growth in the number of voluntary organisations in part to the government policy of promoting voluntary action through this unit. Colin Rochester’s historical analysis suggests that there was a dual purpose at play; promoting voluntary action at a local level, but also promoting mergers between organisations to ‘rationalise’ activity. It would be interesting to see more on the extent to which the Unit’s grants programme was trying to shape the voluntary sector, and whether it could be considered successful.

The grants themselves totalled £4.6 million in 1976/77 according to Ralph Kramer – a fairly small percentage of the £35.4 million spend across government departments on voluntary sector grants that year. Indeed, he says that the VSU had more of ‘a liaison rather than a coordinative function, providing some interdepartmental linkages’. This suggests more of a limited role for the Unit overall. Jeremy Kendall and Martin Knapp reflect on this ten years later as well. While they recognise the symbolic importance of the Unit, and even applaud it as ‘an enclave of voluntary sector understanding within central government’, they suggest that its resource base is ‘tokenistic’. They also see its reach within government as limited; ‘while it claims to coordinate government policy, the VSU’s influence within government has been very limited, since other departments have been reluctant to accept “interference” in what they perceive to be their own internal responsibilities.’ William Plowden, writing about the background to the introduction of the Compact under New Labour, adds that ‘a VSU would need to be extremely effectively led at bureaucratic level and strongly supported at political level for its point of view to prevail over that of other departments. The VSU did not usually meet either of these tests’. There is, perhaps, a lesson in here about not expecting too much from such units, although I wouldn’t want to pre-judge the nature and scope of the emerging one too early.

The VSU was eventually rebranded as the Active Communities Unit (and Directorate), the Civil Renewal Unit, the Office of the Third Sector (re-located to the Cabinet Office), and finally the Office for Civil Society. Pete Alcock notes how these changing titles mirror, to some extent, the developing policy discourses around the sector, and the changing and expanding role voluntary organisations were seen to play in society and service delivery. It is interesting to note the working title reported in the trade press of the new policy unit, including reference to ‘charities, faith organisations and businesses’. This suggests that charities might be seen in an even wider context again.

Alcock has also written an excellent description of institutional change during the early 2000s which I recommend reading. He notes that there is an argument about whether the establishment of these types of units serve to create a sector as a distinct entity, constituted as ‘a ‘governable terrain’ and therefore a site for policy intervention and, potentially, control’. As with the VSU, I think this is an interesting area of exploration, and something to think about as this new unit develops; to what extent is it trying to shape the sector in a way that serves its needs? Does that impact on charities’ independence? To what extent would, or could, charities and sector leaders challenge or influence the intended direction?

The Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson MP, has been notably absent from a lot of the voluntary sector world since he took up post. The fact that this new unit will be at Number 10 does suggest some kind of renewed focus, which certainly could be useful. As ever, we will have to wait to see the detail.

If you’re interested in looking in more detail at this subject, or have any interesting further research to show me, get in touch!

(And here’s the Rick Astley video because I know it’s stuck in your head now.)

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