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.


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!

New Year’s Resolution no. 2: making a mark as a trustee

One of the best things I’ve done this year is become a trustee of a charity. I’ve been a trustee before, many years ago for Children’s Rights Alliance for England, which was a great experience and helped me learn about what’s involved in running an organisation. But that was a very different organisation and a very different situation. My current trustee role is offering challenges and opportunities that I couldn’t get anywhere else. The next step for me is to do something amazing with that.

I’m a trustee of Croft House Settlement, a community venue with a long history and a small turnover. I was attracted to it first because I’m a voluntary action history nerd; the settlement movement in the late 19th and early 20th century brought services into poor communities to tackle poverty and offer education and support to those who would otherwise struggle to get it. Toynbee Hall is one of the most famous and is still running fantastic services today. The movement is rooted in Christian philanthropy, and Croft House was established in 1902 by the Rev. William Blackshaw in an area of poor housing and poverty in Sheffield. After a period of decline, it was resurrected in the late 1980s by a marching band looking for a new home, and has been home to it and a range of other dance, music and theatre groups ever since.

The existing trustee board was looking for a refresh and reached out through Do-It for anyone interested. It got the kind of shock that it wanted; a group of new trustees that brought a different age and gender demographic to the group, that had new ideas and different perspectives to contribute and that could (and fully intend to) help to develop and improve Croft House Settlement, whilst respecting its history and its existing dedicated user group. Already we’ve set out plans for developing a full strategy based on three overarching areas; the building, the branding and the community. These will link together to make crucial improvements to the physical space, some parts of which are in desperate need of refurbishment, to listen to and make the most of service users, creating and embedding a real community, and getting the message out to new organisations and customers, boosting business and helping financial sustainability.

My interest is in the community. In taking the time to examine what I like and what I’m good at during my year as a Charityworks Graduate Trainee, I realised that what I really enjoy is building links between different people and different organisations, and creating something – an idea, a service, a space – that they can really buy into. Listening to existing users is key to this, for me; the service users of Croft House Settlement will be able to explain what they like (and what they dislike) about the place than I ever can, because they use it, week in, week out. It’s as simple as that. They have to be a key part in making it better, and in bringing more people in. Using those existing networks, I hope, will be a great way of bringing in new communities and customers.

So, the New Year’s Resolution beneath all of this involves developing some new skills for myself as well as being a part of developing a whole organisation. I want the building to get the investment it deserves. I want it to have a solid strategy for organisational development in place. And I want it to embody a sense of community; be guided by it, and make the most of it as an asset. My resolution is to be a part of making all of this happen.

Business and the Voluntary Sector: Giving time, giving money, giving enough?

My last blog was about the relationship between the voluntary sector and local government, and how that relationship is changing. This one is about a different kind of relationship; between the voluntary and the private sector. Recent development funds for local infrastructure organisations (LIOs) have included significant drivers encouraging voluntary organisations to work more closely with the private sector. With some sources of income including local and national government on the decline, organisations are being encouraged to find new ways of working, new relationships and crucially new sources of funding.

Some great examples that I’ve come across in my work with LIOs include Chester Voluntary Action’s Skillshare programme, which brokers relationships between local businesses with particular skills and voluntary and community organisations in need of support. Services provided free of charge include business mentoring and planning, marketing, and support around architecture and planning, as well as supplying IT equipment, software and training. Voluntary Action North East Lincolnshire (VANEL) has created a leadership development scheme that brings together new leaders from the voluntary, public and private sectors to build skills, relationships and joint solutions to local problems. And Merton Voluntary Service Council (MVSC) has worked closely with Merton Chamber of Commerce to create Merton Means Business, encouraging businesses to donate time, money and skills to local voluntary and community organisations. MVSC employs a business engagement manager, who sits within the Chamber of Commerce, and works to build relationships between business and the community.

But attempts to develop new ways of working have not seen universal success. Problems with recruitment have held some organisations back, whilst others have not been able to generate the planned return on investment, in terms of income or goods and support in-kind. Indeed, a report produced by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), supported by NAVCA, called Local Business Giving: between the raffle prize and a new source of funding, concludes that local business support for and engagement with the local voluntary and community sector is very low. Few businesses contribute financial support, what is received represents a tiny fraction of a voluntary organisation’s overall income, and it usually goes to large organisations. Additionally, the Directory of Social Changes Company Giving Almanac 2013 finds that total support, including in-kind support, accounted for 2 per cent of all charities’ total income in 2013, and just 0.4 per cent of companies’ pre-tax profits. It also found that support given had fallen by 27 per cent compared to the previous year.

However, CRESR suggests that whilst returns are low now, the investment could well pay off in the future. One organisation that has invested time and resources in developing this work is TimeBank. It is an organisation that runs a range of mentoring and volunteering programmes, including employee volunteering. This March I met with Helen Walker, Chief Executive, and Filippo Artoni, Programme Manager, to discuss what had made their programme successful in engaging small and large businesses alike. They started their programme in 2006, after developing a relationship with T-Mobile. From here, they were able to develop their knowledge of what works, and the kind of language and approach needed to act as a broker between the voluntary and private sector.

Because, as Helen and Filippo stress, it is a different language that’s needed as well as a tailored approach. Businesses engage with employee volunteering for different reasons; to tick a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) box, to improve employee satisfaction and retention, to bring a team together and develop its skills or for more straightforward philanthropic reasons. Companies’ budgets for CSR have been squeezed over the past few years, and they are much more ‘picky’ about the service that they are prepared to pay for. A real professional service needs to recognize where a company is coming from, what it wants and how it wants to engage.

Of course, the voluntary organisation must also get something valuable out of the experience as well. For Helen it’s about bridging the gap between the two. TimeBank’s aim with employee volunteering is to create lifelong volunteers from these one-off experiences, experiences that benefit organisations and help provide support to people that need it, as much as providing a service to the business.

Does it make any money? It does cover costs, but the margins aren’t high, says Filippo. Given the high level of resources needed to build relationships and organize corporate volunteering events, there is limited potential for a new source of unsecured income. But that’s not the point. The point is the impact of this work, the journey of the individual, and the benefit to those in need. Engaging with the private sector involves new relationships, new language and new ways of working, but at the end of the day, the mission is the same. And this is just a means to that mission.

Are you a voluntary organisation that works closely with business? Or a business that works closely with charity? Or do you disagree with the whole concept? Leave a comment here or get in touch at

The Local Authority: That’s all folks? A call for evidence

This is one of the most common messages I hear when I’m out and about from local infrastructure organisations (LIOs), such as Councils for Voluntary Service (CVS):

 We’ve lost funding from the local authority already. Were expecting to lose a lot more.

 Here’s why:

This is the so-called local government Graph of Doom (a term coined by Barnet Council), which shows that whilst the cost of adult social care is rising, overall budgets are falling. This means that the pot of ‘money for everything else’ – culture, leisure, voluntary sector services, and any other ‘added value’ activity – is getting ever smaller. This graph is starting to become a bit of a cliché, but an important one, as its message is repeated across the country by voluntary and public sector officials alike.

In my capacity as Charityworks Graduate Trainee, although with obvious links to my work with NAVCA, I am currently researching and writing a report about the impact of these cuts on LIOs around the country. There has been much good work done by NCVO and others on mapping current and predicting future cuts. I want to use this information together with income data breakdowns showing grants and contracts from statutory sources, lifted from LIO annual reports, to say something about the financial reality over the past few years.

But alongside this, I want to put out a call to you, dear readers, for your stories. From my visits and interviews, not to mention my analysis of the Transforming Local Infrastructure programme for NAVCA, I’m already aware that there is a huge amount of variation across the country. Some have already lost all local authority funding, others have been able to secure funding agreements for the next few years, and more still are bracing themselves for punitive future budgets. I’m also aware that much has been done to build relationships in other areas, such as health, housing, and with private sector partners. I have also heard examples of successful work to redefine relationships with local authorities, and I am sure there are more.

So whether you’re fearing cuts or have already been through them, or are responsible for making them, if you’ve been successful in finding alternative income sources or are struggling with sustainability, if you’re from an LIO, a local authority or another voluntary and community organisation, I want to hear from you. What are your expectations? What are your solutions? And, ultimately, why are these changes important (if, indeed, they are)?

You can get in touch here through the comments section, or over email (, and I will,of course, respect any requests for anonymity. You can even tweet your key messages to @elmunro, with the hashtag #LIOfuture, if you’re that way inclined. This will be a crucial issue for many of you, and I want my research to be as useful as possible, so get in touch.