Like much of the rest of Britain, the years since 2008 have left large parts of the voluntary sector feeling battered and bruised. A tougher-than-ever funding environment and increased demand for services has squeezed even the most resilient organisations, while the campaigning role of charities – who are speaking truth to power more than ever – has been under attack. The heady days of the Big Society, and before that the Third Way, seem long ago. Many in the voluntary sector fret that the absence of a ‘narrative’ for the sector signals a lack of interest in what voluntary organisations can contribute to society and, in turn, the administration taking power in May 2015.
A bigger difference
With a year to go until the next general election, NCVO’s members have told us that they can make a bigger difference to solving the challenges the next administration will face. The proposals in our manifesto, A bigger difference: Realising the potential of voluntary organisations and volunteers (PDF, 1.4MB), are not about NCVO’s members, but the better society that they want to contribute towards: growing an economy that benefits all parts of society; providing opportunity for those furthest from the mainstream; building sustainable public services that meet people’s needs; and enabling people to make more of a difference in their community and to the causes they care about.
Voluntary organisations are increasingly focusing down on impact. That so many are focusing on making a bigger difference to the world around them should be welcome news for anyone thinking about the challenges ahead. But there’s also a realism among voluntary organisations about the constraints faced by the next government. So, the main focus of NCVO’s manifesto reflects our members’ belief that changing how government uses its resources and works with voluntary organisations and the volunteer movement is more important than calls for particular spending programmes or support for the voluntary sector per se.
Ask not what you can do for the voluntary sector…
First, and most important, is our call to make a tangible shift in the focus of government spending towards early intervention – dealing with problems at their source rather than picking up the pieces later on. At the risk of raising expectations, it seems like there’s a real momentum getting behind the focus on early intervention, thanks to the efforts of the Early Action Task Force in particular. The next election is hopefully an opportunity to turn this into an unstoppable force. Early intervention is one of those wonderfully simple ideas that can seem difficult to understand why we don’t do it more. We hope that proposals to set minimum targets for the proportion of spending on early intervention, to set a ‘ten-year test’ for measuring the impact of spending (to encourage long-term decisions), and to establish a loan fund for public bodies that want to establish more early intervention initiatives, will go some way to shifting the way government works.
If switching spending to early intervention means that public services will deliver better value for money, we think social value commissioning will do the same. All parties supported the Social Value Act, which enables commissioners to think beyond the narrow confines of a contract to take into account, for example wider social benefits such as employment opportunities for those furthest from the labour market. But it’s still early days for social value: so, our proposals to establish a Centre for Social Value to support commissioners in making use of the Act will, we believe, deliver more joined-up thinking in commissioning and make public spending work harder for local communities.
We’re also proposing that the next government carries out a major review of public service markets, to consider whether they are fit for the future and how voluntary organisations can play a greater role in local services and their local economy. And what better way to play a role in the local economy than by paying a living wage – so we are proposing that organisations delivering public services should be enabled to pay the living wage.
— NAVCA (@NAVCA) May 15, 2014
Much of the debate over the period since 2008 has centred on public spending reductions and the tough economic environment. NCVO estimates that in the first year of this parliament alone, the voluntary sector experienced disproportionate cuts of £1.3bn in their grants and contracts. Recession, redundancy and restructuring have exhausted many organisations. But resilience has also been characteristic – and in many places, volunteers and voluntary organisations have taken on a bigger role to support communities. This is welcome: and we propose to build on this over the next five years. Government can magnify the difference its own support makes through mechanisms such as matched funding or support for volunteering. So, our proposals to simplify the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme, support access to volunteering opportunities, and match donations to local foundations will particularly help the small voluntary organisations at the heart of every local community.
We have one year to influence the political parties…
…but we need to start now if we are going to have any influence. The clear message from voluntary organisations and the volunteer movement is that they want to achieve their potential and make a bigger difference. But the policy challenges of the future require a fundamental rethink of the way government works – and as part of that, the way it works with the voluntary sector. In the year to May 2015, we hope that these proposals will be the basis for that fundamental rethink.