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!

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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.

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 ellie.munro@gmail.com

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 (ellie.munro@navca.org.uk), 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.