What’s happened to the voluntary sector since 1965?

I decided a little while ago that my literature review wasn’t pretty enough. So I made this timeline of voluntary sector history instead. Enjoy! 

My research looks at how the local voluntary sector in Birmingham has developed from about 1965 onwards. The story of the national voluntary sector, and the policy, programmes and debates that have acted to shape it over the years, is vitally important to the local story. I’m expecting some things to be different, and some other factors to come into play, but I’m also looking out for how national narratives shape local

I’m currently looking at that national story, at what other people who’ve gone before me have written about it, and at the history of the relationship between the government and the sector. I’ve done two blogs on this already – a short one on charity histories and a long one on government strategies for the sector. This one brings that all together.

To help me understand the story, I’ve created a timeline from 1965 to 2015, which I’d like to share with all of you. If you’ve ever wondered about the history of the voluntary sector, in policy and political terms at least, this might be the shiny new toy for you.

It covers government policy, strategies, funding streams and reports, it includes some start dates for certain charities, and some independent reports about the state of the sector. It is split into four sections – there is a debate about whether these are the right sections which you’re welcome to have with me – corresponding with major changes in government. Hopefully it gives a sense of the journey of the sector, and also the complexity associated with it.

It’s an ongoing process, and I would love to hear thoughts, suggestions, mistakes I’ve made and things I’ve missed out if you spot them. I’ve been considering doing some smaller, more focussed and more developed lines for things like government units – if you have any other ideas do get in touch. If you want to do something similar, the tool is called, helpfully, Timeline, and I’m happy to offer any tips if you need them (it’s super duper easy).

I hope it’s useful!


Scrutinies, strategies and reviews: what does government want from the sector?

This is a long blog about government scrutinies, strategies and reviews of voluntary sector policy. I’ve done a quick summary here, also at the bottom, in case you just want the gist (and the badges). Otherwise, read on.

I had a throwaway conversation a while ago on twitter about ‘surviving’ various government reviews of the voluntary sector. Someone (maybe me, who can tell?) mentioned that we should get badges. This blog is about 50% an excuse to make those badges.

It is also a slightly delayed response to the announcement of a new Civil Society Strategy, due for release any minute now. Governments like a strategy; they set out the rhetorical parameters for its vision of the voluntary sector, whether that’s as a partner in service delivery or a means of diverting demand. The recent history of the sector is littered with them, and they provide a useful means of analysing the government-sector relationship, or at least what central government wants from that relationship.

I’ve picked two that I’ve been reading recently to reflect on here, before offering some thoughts on what to expect this year. The 1990 Efficiency Scrutiny was the first concerted effort to address the role of the voluntary sector in the long period of Conservative rule (one or two DHSS reports aside). The 2002 Cross Cutting Review was by no means the only sector-specific report of the New Labour era but this one is interesting in the way it captures continuity and emerging change in the relationship.* There are some seemingly easy bets, based on what’s passed with the current government, for what will be in the new strategy, but nothing is sure in this game, and its scope is still unclear.

The 1990 Efficiency Scrutiny

The Efficiency Scrutiny of Government Funding of the Voluntary Sector,(1,2) set up in 1989 by the Home Office and producing its first report in 1990, is cited as heralding a ‘dramatic shift’ for the voluntary sector.(3) This report was the first from government after a long period of relative neglect, and tied into a wider agenda of maximising ‘efficiency’ in government spending, in the context of a ‘New Right’ vision of society and welfare provision, including a withdrawal from direct delivery.

The key theme is ‘instrumentalism’. The sector is described as an enactor of government policy – organisations are encouraged to play their part in delivering public services, as per the ongoing Thatcherite reforms – but that’s it. Their own agendas are not considered, and they do not have a role in forming that policy.

It is not all about services. Volunteering is noted as a welcome activity in its own right, as well as for its perceived contribution to reducing the burden on the state.(4) However its description of the sector in the majority of the report, and certainly the focus of its over 100 recommendations was, as Colin Rochester puts it, ‘nakedly instrumental’.(5) ‘Virtues’ of voluntary action espoused by the Home Office include organisations’ ability to get close to the ‘customer’; to be innovative and able to respond to new needs; to work in a wide range of fields; and to operate at less cost than government. Departments were recommended to look at how voluntary organisations ‘might be able to contribute in key policy areas – if necessary at the expense of other work, grants or schemes which have less priority’. It found that ‘core funding is a cost effective way of supporting voluntary activity’, but that grants needed to be properly managed, with provisions for ending grants ‘if a body stops being effective and improvements cannot be achieved’. Departments and local authorities should, however, be looking actively at the scope for ‘using voluntary bodies as agents to deliver services’. The report reiterates support for intermediary bodies, providing support to and representation of the voluntary sector at a national and local level. It advocated for continued core funding for these bodies, but also foreshadowed developments in future decades by suggesting services might be marketized and shifted towards a demand-led model, even exploring (although at this time dismissing) the idea of giving grants to voluntary organisations to purchase services directly.(1)

It was prescriptive on party political campaigning, stating that ‘no aspect of the activity should be party political in intention, use or presentation’. It was more gentle on other types of campaigning, stating that it ‘may form a legitimate and valuable part of the voluntary sector’s activities’, and even ‘that in some cases it may be worthwhile for government to fund such activities.’ It explicitly did not recommend the introduction of a standard condition preventing funds from being used for campaign activities. However it also specified in the 1994 implementation progress report that the organisation’s more general view of priorities should be in line with that of government’s:

18.6 Departments should decide whether the organisation’s balance of activities is in line with their own priorities. If there is a serious mismatch between a Department’s view and the voluntary body’s view of the relative priority of the various activities it will not be appropriate to give core funding.(2)

Jane Lewis claims it was ‘clear’ that the Home Office was trying to exert more control over the sector through the Efficiency Scrutiny.(3) Osborne and McLaughlin summarise the relationship, reflected in practice, neatly; it was ‘structured so that government maintained control of the policy making process, with the role of the VCO sector being restricted to that of service agent’.(6) The Scrutiny sought to professionalise the sector, to enable it to deliver public services. It does not consider its capacity to do so, nor any potential for policy partnership.

The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service Delivery: A Cross Cutting Review

The Cross Cutting Review of 2002 included 42 recommendations and had partnership at its heart.(7) It involved nine working groups, including a cross-departmental ministerial steering group, a Treasury team, an official steering group and six thematic groups – research, developing the Compact, structures and funding flows, capacity, social and community enterprise, and service delivery – including high profile individuals and organisations from central government, local government and the great and the good of the voluntary sector.

The Review spends time discussing the ‘unique’ characteristics and contributions of the voluntary sector, including its perceived specialism, participative methods, independence, access to communities and flexibility outside of institutional constraints. As per the title, however, the central drive of this report is the voluntary sector’s role in service delivery. Partnership, innovation and even independence are all discussed in the context of how voluntary organisations can play their part in delivering local services, and how their capacity can be built to allow them to do so better. Strengths are framed, and built upon, in a way that retains government aims at the centre.

It shares some of the aims of the Efficiency Scrutiny, for sure, but the motives are expressed very differently. There is also a sense that the voluntary sector was very much along for the ride; this was not voluntary organisations being given responsibility or taking up slack, but working in partnership to develop better ways by which they themselves could play their part. In tone and language at least, this was a co-designed project, with shared responsibilities, and investment on both sides of money and staff.

In terms of practical results, the Cross Cutting Review created a government funding portal which still runs today (h/t Ben Wittenberg), created the FutureBuilders programme, the first round of which offered investment totalling £125 million over three years to organisations delivering services in target policy areas such as ‘health and social care, crime and social cohesion, in education and for children and young people’,(7) and laid the groundwork for major programmes around capacity building for the sector. It encouraged organisations to bid for full cost recovery, and departments to consider longer three-year funding periods. The report itself included a staffing structure, actions and deadlines for implementation of recommendations; there was a clear intention to demonstrate commitment, and to receive it in return.

However, while there was encouragement, there was no real requirement that voluntary organisations must be involved in the design and planning of services, and no clarity as to what involvement would look like. It can be seen as an early part of creating a ‘governable’ sector;(8) there was a clear expression of ‘shared values’, but also an assertion of the sector’s independence as a distinctive feature. The latter presented the sector as a-political, outside of party politics, while the ‘partnership’ thread brought it on board as an inherent part of reshaping policy and practice, namely through the expansion of competitive markets. There was an accompanying narrative around the transformation of the sector; authors note the government’s ‘expressed commitment’ to the ‘modernisation’ of the sector,(6) and the language of professionalisation, training and development, and best practice, which sought to homogenise and maximise the efficiency of the sector, according to ideological principles of service delivery that governed reforms of the time. This arguably represents an element of continuity of aim with the older Efficiency Scrutiny, albeit with clearly different methods and language at play.

What can we expect from the Civil Society Strategy?

There are a couple of government documents that can give us some rhetorical clues as to what might be in the new strategy. The Ministerial Statement doesn’t give much away, but there’s a rather important echo of Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister in the phrase ‘burning injustices’. The Government may not be doing anything much about tackling these (call me a cynic), but there’s clearly still an ambition to be rhetorically defined as ‘solving’ them – and the sector, by this account, is part of that, presumably within the confines of government-defined solutions. Partnership ‘within and between sectors and communities’ is mentioned in this context, as a means to ‘better mobilise resources and expertise’ – so no new money, but maybe a reconfiguration of existing support.

In keeping with older Conservative ideology, the statement suggests a very wide scope in terms of type of organisation, from ‘individuals, charities, youth organisations [presumably singled out because of government’s obsession with National Citizen Service] and communities’ to social enterprise, mission-led businesses, public service mutuals, and private sector and individual investors. Depending on your own personal definition of the sector, this broad sweep may be a concern, for others a boon. There might be a particular focus on encouraging private philanthropy, or rewarding ‘ethical capitalism’. Or we may simply see a repeat of commitments to developing social investment (yawn). The Government’s response to the House of Lords report Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society also suggests this will be a significant thread, stating it will ‘explore further opportunities to build stronger connections between businesses and charities.’

That response also mentions a big box on my bingo sheet – helping small charities get commissioned, and avoid exploitation by larger organisations. Action was promised on tackling barriers in the market for smaller groups some time ago – I suspect this is where the ideas may finally be presented. Related to this, there might be some interesting moral positioning of ‘big’ versus ‘small’, virtuous voluntary action versus the familiar tales of bad behaviour from big players.

Interestingly, the report says that ‘social value’, as defined by the Social Value Act, will also feature. Given the general lack of chat around this in recent years, I don’t quite believe this will go beyond a reaffirmation of its principles and an encouragement to follow best practice. Likewise the Compact. Digital skills get a mention, there might be something on data  – perhaps we’ll see a re-e-enabling of the sector – and there is brief talk of joining up policy across Whitehall, a worthy ambition. There may be something on governance and the Charity Commission, but this may well all be saved for the levy consultation.

Sector voices have, understandably, advocated for their bit of the sector, whether small, social enterprise, community, funders or fundraising. They would also like to see more and better funding, and better positioning within government of sector issues. Both of these are unlikely. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to this new strategy, because it has been a comparably quiet time for the sector, and it would be nice to see what this government is thinking. Sector policy wonks will no doubt be quick off the mark in reacting to its content, and seeking to influence its final form. I shall make you all an appropriate badge.

*I also, in the interests of full disclosure, cannot find the 2005 HM Treasury report Exploring the Role of the Third Sector in Public Service Delivery and Reform. If you have a copy, hit me up.

(1) Home Office. Efficiency Scrutiny of Government Funding of the Voluntary Sector: Profiting from Partnership. Home Office 1990.

(2) Voluntary Services Unit. Efficiency Scrutiny of Government Funding of the Voluntary Sector: Implementation Report. Home Office 1994.

(3) Lewis J. ‘Reviewing the Relationship Between the Voluntary Sector and the State in Britain in the 1990s’. VOLUNTAS, 1999;10(3):255-270.

(4) Ware P, Todd MJ. ‘British Statutory Sector Partnerships with the Voluntary Sector’. The Social Policy Journal 2002 Sep 1,;1(3):5-20.

(5) Rochester C. Rediscovering Voluntary Action. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013.

(6) Osborne SP, McLaughlin K. ‘The Cross-Cutting Review of the Voluntary Sector: Where Next for Local Government- Voluntary Sector Relationships?’ Regional Studies 2004 Jul 1, 38(5):571-582.

(7) HM Treasury. The Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service Delivery: A Cross Cutting Review. 2002.

(8) Carmel E, Harlock J. ‘Instituting the ‘third sector’ as a governable terrain: partnership, procurement and performance in the UK’. Policy & Politics 2008 -04-01;36(2):155-171.

TLDR screengrab


Telling Charity Histories

The National Archives and the Pilgrim Trust launched Archives Revealed last month, a new programme of grant funding for organisations including charities to scope archiving projects and create new collections. So I thought I’d share some charity histories that I’ve found over the past few weeks.

Charity histories are important because they tell our stories in their own right, but they also tell our stories as part of the fabric of society – how do we fit into the grand narrative of the welfare state? How have we changed as society has changed? How do we respond to crises and opportunities in the communities we serve?

Our stories also tell us something about how we see ourselves. Some make use of extensive archives. Others present a particular face or image. They are written for a purpose; researchers should be alive to whether some bits are emphasised or downplayed, and how they exist in a wider context – the narrative of our collective sector.

We need more stories – big and small, national and local, from all types of organisations. There are all kinds of records in the back of filing cabinets, in people’s attics or buried in hard drives, waiting for someone with the time or motivation to go through them all. Archives, national or local, might be interested in your records (and researchers like me always are), or you might want to tell your own story. Charlotte Clements, Georgina Brewis and the Charity Finance Group have produced some great resources that can help you to both think about cataloguing and archiving, and to improve your record keeping overall – find them at Voluntary Sector Archives. The new funding from Archives Revealed could be the perfect opportunity to get started, if you’ve got the right project.

In the meantime, I’ve been searching out (mostly late 20th century) charity histories for a project, so I thought I’d share them here. I’ll keep updating the list as I find more, and do send me yours if I’ve missed it!

Action Aid Action Aid has a brief history on its website; it was founded in 1972 by businessman Cecil Jackson-Cole.
Addaction Addaction was set up in 1967 after Mollie Craven, who was caring for her son, wrote to the Guardian calling for people with lived experience to come together. The Guardian has the original letter, linked to here.
Carers UK Carers UK was founded as the National Council for the Single Woman and Her Dependents by Rev. Mary Webster in 1965.
Charity Finance Group CFG started in 1987 – here’s a timeline of its history and achievements.
Child Poverty Action Group CPAG has published a report by Pat Thane and Ruth Davidson about their 50 year history. They also have a timeline on their website, including images of archival material.
Crisis Crisis was started by Bill Shearman, a Conservative activist, who used his political connections to gain cross-party support for the campaign. The Crisis website has a full timeline of its history.
FPA The Family Planning Association (full disclosure – I’m a trustee) was set up in 1930. The website includes their history in two parts, and the organisation’s archives are in the Wellcome Trust.
Friends of the Earth Their first campaign involved dumping thousands of empties at Schweppes HQ. FoE’s website includes a 45 year timeline of the UK organisation.
Friends of the Earth Birmingham This local branch is running a project documenting its 40 year history, tweeting stories and archival material.
Greenpeace Greenpeace’s history includes the history of the global movement as well as the UK campaign, started in 1977.
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants JCWI was founded in 1967. Its 2016-17 annual report includes a celebration of its 50 year history.
Motor Neurone Disease Association Set up in 1979 by a group of people with lived experience of the disease. This PDF provides a brief history.
NACRO Crime and social justice charity NACRO celebrated its 50th birthday in 2016. Its website includes a timeline of its history.
Oxfam Oxfam has a timeline of its history since its beginnings in 1942.
Parkinson’s UK Parkinson’s UK was founded as the Parkinson’s Disease Society in 1969. It has a timeline of its history and research progress on its website.
Rethink Founded in 1970 as the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, Rethink’s website includes the original letter to the Times from John Pringle, who was living with the condition.
Runnymede Trust Runnymede Trust has an oral history project documenting its history in the context of the struggle for race equality between 1968-1988 (nb some links are broken)
Shelter Shelter, formed in 1965, has a dedicated mini-site celebrating its 50th birthday.
Stonewall Stonewall was set up in 1989 – there’s a history of the organisation and its place in the fight for LGBT equality.
Toynbee Hall Toynbee Hall was the original Settlement in the UK, established by Canon Samuel Barnett in 1884. Eleanor Sier (@trulynella) also shares archive finds on twitter.
Victim Support The first Victim Support scheme was set up in Bristol in 1974. The website provides a brief timeline.
Women’s Aid Established as the National Women’s Aid Federation in 1974. The website includes a timeline of its history.
Royal Voluntary Service RVS has an extensive archives project. It also tweets material at @RVSarchives.
Muslim Aid Muslim Aid was founded in 1985 by community leaders from 17 Islamic organisations in response to the humanitarian crisis in Africa. The website includes a brief overview of the organisation’s history.
Big Issue Foundation The Big Issue Foundation was founded by Gordon Roddick and John Bird in 1991, in response to concerns about increasing levels of rough sleeping. The website states: ‘The two believed that the key to solving the problem of homelessness lay in helping people to help themselves.’
Leonard Cheshire The disability charity was founded in 1948. Its mini-site, ‘Rewind’, features over 600 digitised items from its archive, focussing in particular on the history of its early ‘Cheshire Homes’.
Disabled Living This Manchester-based Charity was formed in 1897 as the Band of Kindness and Children’s Help Society, to encourage children to be kind to animals and in turn their fellow citizens. It evolved into a charity supported disabled children,
and now provides information, advice and support around aids, appliances and equipment for disabled people of all ages.

On why I’m a trustee (and why you should be too)

Every once in a while, when I mention that I’m a trustee, someone will say to me “Oh I’ve always wanted to do that. I think it’s something I’ll do later in my career, when I’ve got the experience.” I’m here to tell you to do it now – because you’ve got what you need, and you have no idea how much more you’ll get out of it.

I’ve been a trustee sporadically since I was 18, first for Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), then for Croft House Settlement, a community centre in Sheffield (old blog here), and now for the Family Planning Association (FPA). Each role has been completely different, and has taught me something new about myself, my skills and how to run a charity. Each one had given me the chance to be a part of something I am passionate about. So here’s what I’ve learnt.

I really like spreadsheets

Full disclosure: I got a D in maths (sorry again, Mr Rome). I didn’t really expect to like the numbers side of being a trustee. At CRAE I got my first sight of charity accounts, and got the support from staff to understand them. I quickly learnt that I enjoy the kind of attention to detail and process involved in accounts scrutiny (read: am a massive nerd).

I also learnt that I don’t have to be an actual accountant. The boards I’ve been on have had other lovely trustees who are financial experts, and staff who take the time to explain the trickier technical detail to me in a way I can understand – and could explain to others if I were asked. I need to be confident that we have clear and robust accounts, we’re working to build our income base and we’re spending our money wisely. To do that I need to take time to read, be confident to ask questions and be mindful of our mission. I don’t need to be an accountancy whizz. Being a trustee is a team game; you’ll have skills and knowledge that a board needs, whether it’s fundraising and finance, strategy and campaigning or a fresh perspective, passion and lived experience. Your skills will be balanced by all those other people’s, and you’ll help each other to pick up more along the way.

I’m passionate about the causes I support – and I can show that off

There is a lot of focus on compliance, fraud, finance and other important technical things in the press about trustees, and rightly so. But I think that can sometimes mask the role a trustee can have in promoting and celebrating the work of their charity. This is such important work, for me, and it’s also I think the stuff that attracts people to this kind of role, so we shouldn’t downplay it.  It seems kind of obvious to say I’m passionate about the things I support, but I think it’s an important first step when you’re looking for opportunities – the right one will be one you really truly care about, and that will make you a better trustee.

I’ve learnt over the years that I can support these charities well just through social media, whether that means helping a community space with its own online presence, or just being vocal about how great FPA is and how important its campaigns are. Recently I’ve also been lucky enough to attend lots of FPA events; I’m so grateful for the team for letting me come along because it gives me an opportunity to see their great work first hand, and to be a part of the movement as well. If you’re passionate about a cause and want to support a great charity in that field, then being a trustee is a great role. It means making sure the charity is in a healthy state, but it also means getting involved, throwing yourself into opportunities and representing where you can.

I’m constantly learning

There’s a great set of top tips here from existing trustees, a lot of which focus on asking questions. This can be really hard when you’re new and you think you don’t know anything, but trust me, you do, and you’ll know a lot more if you ask. Trustees and staff should take responsibility for making sure people new to the role have the right support and information to understand what’s going on, and the tools to contribute fully to the role.

One of Leon Ward’s tips is that it can take a year to really get to know a board, and I think this is absolutely right. My time at Croft House was cut short because I had to leave Sheffield, which was a shame, because after a year of hard strategy work I felt like we were really at the start of something great – but again, my fab fellow trustees were there to carry that all forward, with their own expertise and passion. That role taught me about thinking strategically and looking creatively for opportunities. My previous role at CRAE, alongside the spreadsheet thing, taught me about the importance of involving beneficiaries and supporting them appropriately. In my current role I’m building on my skills and interests and developing new ones too. This, incidentally, also makes me a better charity worker, because it helps me to think about the bigger picture, strategic relationships and competing priorities.

You don’t have to know everything there is to know about governance and strategic leadership, and you don’t have to have worked in the sector (or anywhere) for 30 years to qualify you as a trustee, because being a trustee is so much more than that. It’s an opportunity to be part of a movement, to identify and develop your skills and experience and to bring your own creativity, passion or strategic vision to the table. So, if you’ve ever thought “maybe I could” – do it!

A blog for Alice on deepest darkest theory…

My pal Alice, campaign wizard and general all-round good sort, made the mistake a while ago of asking what my Master’s dissertation was about. So I sent it to her. And received some justifiably rude words back. Ever keen to minimize my impact, this is a (very long, but still shorter than my dissertation) blog specifically to try and explain my theory-heavy tome to her. I have blogged about strategic action fields and other ways of understanding the voluntary sector before, but this develops my thoughts on the theory further and hopefully gives you (Alice) an idea of why I’m so keen on theoretical frameworks in general, and how they affect how we talk about charities.

Why does theory matter?

First a quick bit on why I use a theoretical frame in the first place. As Alice already knows, there are different ways of looking at and understanding the world. Some people might see the world as just what’s in front of them; as researchers they might gather evidence and analyse it in ways that might be described as scientific, looking at the data and seeing what it tells them about an object of study or an intervention. Others might look at assumptions, meanings and structures that act alongside phenomena that affect and shape them, and the way we perceive them. So, the voluntary sector might be characterised by its nuts and bolts and shared attributes, or it might be explored as a set of shared meanings, power structures and other associational factors.

This starting belief about how the world works affects how you study it, what questions you ask about it and how you try to make sense of it. The central point is that theory matters because at the other end, what you produce says something about and has a bearing on real organisations and the people who work within them, because it shapes understandings, discourses and debates which in turn shape practice. The existential debates about voluntary sector independence and voice, whether we’re campaigning too much or too little, relationships with government and groups’ role in society over recent years are, in part, a product of theoretical debates about how we understand and make sense of the ‘sector’ and its place in the wider world.

This kind of work on the sector, even when it’s not the main focus, is fundamentally definitional; it sets the boundaries for what we understand and analyse as the sector. This, as Rob Macmillan says somewhere, is a political act. As such it is continuously influenced and influencing understandings, ideologies and spaces in society. So, say I take a nuts-and-bolts approach and define the sector as registered charities; there are inherent assumptions attached to such a definition – like the idea that legitimation comes from legal recognition, defined by the state; are unregistered organisations thus illegitimate? – that need to be examined, even before you get to that bit about most of ‘the sector’ being small and below the regulatory radar. That registered sector doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of the world either; it is continuously being shaped by external events, political decisions and policy initiatives, as well as by those individuals and organisations who lead and speak for it. And by academics who write about it.

Some definitional theories rely on shared characteristics and modes of operation that go beyond the nuts and bolts, including organisational features that are distinct from those of private sector firms or public sector bureaucracies. These tend to run a serious risk of presenting a normative picture of what a voluntary organisation should look like. For me this often fails to reflect what they do look like. Too often they appeal to an ideal type grounded in a mythical and highly static golden age, which removes understanding of organisations from the changing dynamics, agendas and flows of associational activity that create understanding. It doesn’t encourage us to think about why we think, for instance, voluntary organisations should have unpaid boards, not distribute profits, a basis in membership and be acting for the public good – these principles don’t just exist, they have been constructed over years into norms of practice. Likewise there is also a question (again raised by Rob) about the extent to which ‘distinction’ is really a thing, or whether it’s an idea or construction that organisations trade on for advantage. That’s not necessarily a negative thing at all, more a useful way of considering how organisations collectively define and present themselves, and to what end.

There are many, many branches of theory used to understand the voluntary sector and what happens within it. Words like hybridity, isomorphism and embeddedness pop up on a fairly regular basis in the literature. In the interests of not taking up all of Alice’s time, however, I’m going to talk about just one here – the one that I find most exciting, and which best reflects my own experience of the voluntary sector (or maybe different bits of sector) – Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam’s theory of strategic action fields.

What’s a strategic action field?

Lots of different institutional theorists use the idea of ‘fields’; they’re described in different ways, even called different things, but they’re basically an arena in which organisations, groups or other actors come together around different things like shared goals (like existing for the public good) and organisational behaviours (say, being not-for-profit). Theories like Fligstein and McAdam’s are designed to help understand both what a field looks like, and how change happens (or doesn’t) within it. Like all theories, it builds on other people’s work that’s gone before – in this case people like Bourdieu, Webber, Giddens and other neo-institutional theorists. I’m hoping I can build on it in turn.

There are some key building blocks to this theory which are important to understand before we start thinking about applying it. The field itself is a ‘social order’ or an organised space within our social world. It is made up of incumbents and challengers. An incumbent is an organisation or actor that essentially dominates the field – sets the rules and messages and understandings, and reproduces them too. They’re basically interested in preserving the stability of the field, and their own position. When there’s a crisis they’ll seek to find a message or solution that helps them maintain their position. A challenger is likely to have fewer resources, will contest messages or ways of working, and challenge an incumbent in order to better their own position. When there’s a crisis, skilled social actors might offer alternative messages and solutions that, if they’re accepted by other actors in the field, will help them to make gains. This doesn’t mean fields are always desperate battle grounds, and it also doesn’t exclude collaboration and cooperation (there’s a kind of spectrum of fields from hierarchical to cooperative) but contestation seems to be a fairly permanent fixture. Incidentally, as Alice is a campaigner, I think this can be particularly useful for analysing the dynamics in different campaigning fields. The shared language, (implicitly) agreed methods and dominant players versus those that challenge the predominant practices are pretty easy to identify, and even in coalition campaigning there are hierarchical dynamics, often driven by resources, at play. I think we quite naturally identify these and work out how to work with (or against) them to suit our own aims – this isn’t a bad or a cynical thing, although considering it critically might help us to consider whether there are other possibilities.

Crises happen for different reasons. There might be an exogenous shock – something that happens outside of the field, like a new government after an election or a big financial crisis – that destabilises the field, and can lead to big changes in the rules of the game. Lots of voluntary sector histories are hooked on these – the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ moment in the 1960s, Thatcher’s neoliberal experiment, New Labour orthodoxy of partnership in service delivery, then the era of austerity and, arguably, political delegitimisation of the voluntary sector. These are often related to activity in proximate fields (those nearby, with links to the field you’re looking at), and proximate state fields are particularly important. This tends to place policy and ideology rather at the centre of things – Alice will start to see why this appeals to me.

But changes to fields might also come from within; because there is constant contention and jostling for position, challenges can make a difference to internal hierarchies over time. I’m quite interested in how this process happens, and the extent to which it’s measurable. For instance, I think we’ve recently seen a number of shifts in rhetoric from charities themselves on charity campaigning – both in terms of how the ‘problem’ is framed and who’s ‘to blame’ – tied up with attitudes to and relationships with Government. As much as these are legitimate conversations themselves, I think they can also be seen as part of the contention within a field still trying to reassert its role in society, in the face of a state field that’s changed the rules of the game.

The last thing that’s important to note is fields can exist within organisations, as well as being something they inhabit. You can look at, for instance, a large charity as a series of nested, hierarchically organised fields. There will be the same incumbent/challenger hierarchy, the same sets of shared goals, understandings and rules of the game, and the same type of contention over these, as within a field of organisations. I find this really useful; too often I think we talk about organisations as just being one thing – a campaign organisation, service delivery organisation, a fundraising organisation – whereas this type of frame lets us look at the multiple roles an organisation has, and the conflict and contention inherent within that.

So it’s all pretty simple really, right? Well now let’s look at the problems with it.

Is there anything this theory can’t do?

Yes, I reckon so. But I also reckon we can borrow from some other theories, and maybe recast a couple of elements, to give us a solid basis for understanding and measuring change and development in the voluntary sector.

It can’t account for consensus

Or rather it can, but the emphasis is so much on contention that this sometimes gets lost. I think it would be good to draw the consensus and joint collaborative action  side of life more, because I don’t believe that improving one’s position over another group’s is really a sole, or even prime, motivator in lots of situations.

It can’t tell everyone’s story within the field (but it could…)

This is linked to the consensus issue; is it necessary that everyone must be grouped as a challenger or incumbent, or does that leave some people out? I think creating a third category – something like ‘passenger’ – for those organisations that clearly exist within the field but don’t either lead it in the sense of an incumbent, or challenge the agreed rules, might enable a more realistic picture. These organisations would still be engaged in reproducing the status quo, through following the rules, aims and ways of working agreed and promoted by the incumbents, but because of reasons of resources, or even just satisfaction, may not engage in contention. You couldn’t reasonably call them incumbents because they do not make the decisions that shape the field, but rather go along with them and work within them.

There’s a separate but linked issue here about outsiders. I am concerned – as I am with other theories – that the work involved in boundary setting (saying who’s inside or outside of the field) is problematic. In some ways setting boundaries is a pragmatic decision that has to be made and justified. What I’m more concerned about is an organisation’s ability to say ‘nope, not me’, and where that leaves them if they do. There are radical organisations engaging in what I would still identify as associative voluntary action, and indeed which are often identified in the historical literature as such, who explicitly site themselves as outside of any ‘voluntary sector’ field (check out #solidaritynotcharity on your social media platform of choice). So where does this place them? Does including them in the field, as I’d be tempted to do, co-opt or ignore their radical identity? I’ve seen raised elsewhere the issue of larger charities benefiting from associating themselves with the strengths of small local grass roots groups; I’m not wholly convinced by this line of argument, but it’s one that needs to be considered when thinking about defining the edges of a field.

Organisations are only in one field

The way the theory is written, and usually the way it is applied, is to look at organisations as inhabiting one field. Proximate fields are important, and have knock on effects in the field you’re choosing to look at, but the complexity of existing across multiple fields isn’t really explored, as far as I can see. It is, however, touched on in an article by Taylor, Rees and Damm on the Work Programme as a sub-field of the wider employment services field. Challengers came into this field and successfully changed the rules of the game, bringing a focus on generic employability services rather than specialist ones. Private sector organisations were ready and able to react to these new rules, and reaffirm their position. Voluntary sector organisations weren’t, because they had to consider their mission and the reputational risk inherent in moving away from specialist work with a defined client base. This is surely the result of those organisations existing across different fields – in the Work Programme field, employment services, but also their sector fields. I think the theory can allow for this but it doesn’t account for it. My proposal is to borrow one part of a theory put forward by academic David Billis – the ‘prime sector’ approach – which suggests organisations will have their root in a particular field, and will act or refer to that field’s rules (Billis isn’t into fields, I’m adapting it to my needs here). I think this is a moveable feast – an organisation might choose to position itself strongly in one field over another for its own gain – which also helps to explore how different bits of an organisation can act in different fields at once. This does make it sound quite complicated, but I think as a researcher you can choose which bit to focus on within that system. And I also think it reflects a reality for organisations that do span multiple fields, and are defined by actions, goals and frames, rather than static characteristics.

It doesn’t tell us what resources are important

There is a question about how the relative importance of different resources is assessed, because this makes a huge difference to how the field is structured, and how you can realistically make sense of it. In studies I’ve looked at, authors tend to maybe pick something like income or number of contracts, or sometimes position on a published list of ‘top 50 businesses’. They’re all valid (I think the last one has a dual function of acting as a measure for relative strength, but also determining or reinforcing that strength, and the associated behaviours for success), but I think there are more abstract resources like reputation, relationships, mass appeal, and so on. I think there’s also a need to consider how class, race, gender and other factors play into field hierarchies, potentially as forms of capital (or capital deficits), but I’ve not quite worked out how.

So, are you glad you asked? Are you exhausted? I sure am. I’m sure there are other criticisms that can be levelled, and other theories that offer elements of strength to build on further (I’ve got 3 more years to find all that out. Only 3 years…) But, dear Alice, these are the principle questions the dissertation asks. I’m 100% sure I’ll come up with new problems next week.

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.