Surviving in a changing landscape

Rob Macmillan is a  Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC).

We know that many voluntary organisations, community groups and social enterprises have been facing extremely challenging times in recent years. In a post-crash and coalition government era dominated by austerity and public spending cutbacks, the funding and policy environment for many in the sector seems a bit less friendly. The landscape facing the third sector has been unsettled, and looks increasingly uncertain ahead.

In the last few years a group of research projects has been exploring the trajectories and experiences of third sector organisations and individuals over time, and charting how they have been trying to adapt to a changing environment. These studies have been linked together over the last few months in an exchange project called “Changing Landscapes for the Third Sector”.

One of these studies, the ‘Real Times’ programme at TSRC has followed over time the fortunes, strategies, challenges and performance of 15 diverse case studies of third sector organisations and activities. A new series of short papers from the programme – ‘Unfolding tales of voluntary action’ – has just commenced. The story of a community association in a former mining area and the range of community projects it organises, recently published, describes the everyday struggles, and yet ongoing accomplishment, of keeping projects going and starting new ones, when there are worries about how community activity falls on a narrow range of ageing shoulders.

On 1 May 2014, the linked projects will be coming together at a one-day conference at NCVO in London to air some key themes and dilemmas facing third sector practitioners. The main themes arising from the research will be the focus of a set of conference workshops:

Sustainability – a holy grail?

How are third sector organisations and their activities and services developed and sustained over time, and how do they understand and address key challenges in sustaining both people and finances, particularly in an ‘unsettled’ and turbulent context?

Independence – is it a myth?

How do third sector organisations understand and negotiate the tension between their independence and mission-driven social action on the one hand, and delivering commissioned and contracted services for public bodies on the other?

Participation – why get involved when we’re all exhausted and it makes no difference?

What are the changing hopes, trajectories, expectations and demands on those taking on unpaid roles in the sector (such as volunteers, active community members, and trustees); how are these roles understood, negotiated and managed within varied organisational contexts?

Inter-organisational relationships – competing and collaborating together?

How do third sector organisations relate to similar organisations in their specific geographical contexts and fields, including the balance between rivalry and collaboration? What are the implications for partnership working and mergers?

Governance – the key ingredient?

Rather than being at the mercy of a changing funding and policy environment, are there some organisational factors, such as governance, which matter more than others? If you get them right, can they increase the chance that organisations will survive, and even flourish in pursuit of their mission?

Demonstrating impact – whose drumbeat are we dancing to?

How are various tools and frameworks for demonstrating and measuring outcomes and effectiveness of third sector activity judged and used, and how are they viewed by their funders and other stakeholders?

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