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.

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