Stuart Etherington’s new year letter to the sector

I have written at the start of this new year to all NCVO members with some thoughts on the current situation for the voluntary sector. I would be most interested to hear your views.

Challenges ahead

While last year may have been politically tumultuous, we are in fact only at the beginning of what will be a most eventful period. For better or for worse, we live in interesting times.

Few doubt that the coming year will be, at best, a bumpy ride. Economically, we can look forward to lower growth and higher inflation, while political and media attention will be focused on the all-consuming task of Brexit.

In such challenging conditions it is easy to get distracted. The best advice anyone can offer, as ever, is to focus as far as possible on your mission and long-term goals. This will be particularly challenging for trustees with such uncertainty ahead in so many areas.

The challenges of Brexit are plain. For our part, NCVO will continue to provide all the information and support that we can on this area, while also feeding back your perspectives to the government.

The referendum decision showed that more than ever we need to be a voice for those heard in neither Whitehall nor the town hall. With a government preoccupied by Brexit, it is up to us to find the answers to the problems we face.

The political agenda

The political agenda remains in many ways unclear, though the prime minister’s guiding principle of a ‘shared society’ has provided us with some insight into her thinking. There are many positives to be taken from it, and I will reflect a little further on the concept below.

She also suggested the government will focus on people who are ‘just about managing’. This is welcome, but should not come at the expense of those who are simply not managing at all. A truly shared society involves everyone, including those in the very most vulnerable and difficult circumstances. That is where people are suffering most, where the most opportunity is lost, where our support is most needed. They will not be forgotten by our sector, and we must ensure that they are not forgotten by government.

Challenges in our sector

There are internal challenges in our sector. Things that, as people running voluntary organisations, we need to tackle. There are challenges common to all in the sector, and each of us will have our own particular challenges. We have not yet fully addressed the public’s concerns about fundraising, nor sufficiently strengthened governance within our sector. We must forge ahead with change in these areas so that the public can look to us with confidence when we offer solutions to the challenges now faced by the world.

But now more than ever is the time to look outside the boundaries of our own organisations and our own sector. To think about how we are part of a solution to the challenges we face on a national and even global scale.

Volunteering is a solution

One thing is very clear in my mind. That is that if we are to build a truly shared society – and the principle seems hard to object to whatever your political views – we cannot do so without volunteering. And our sector has the very best expertise in engaging volunteers and in transforming their desire to do good into real outcomes.

To take one example: our health and social care services are under great pressure. Social care in particular is consuming an ever greater proportion of local government spending. The trajectory appears unsustainable. Other services important to people and communities are sacrificed to make way for the essentials. And in just the last week, charities have rightly been at the forefront of drawing attention to the problems facing the NHS.

No one would claim that volunteering alone can bridge the rapidly increasing gaps between demand and supply here. But volunteering, both formal and informal, has to be part of the solution.

In this context we will inevitably run into tricky questions. When money is tight, tensions are invariably brought to the fore. Is it right for volunteers to do this role, or to run that service?

My answer is that I don’t believe in putting limits on what volunteers can do, especially not based on ideological arguments about the role of the state.

Voluntary is not the same as amateur

We need to be clear that voluntary is not the same as amateur. Volunteers already do many of the very toughest jobs in the country. Volunteers in the UK put themselves in the most dangerous of situations to save lives. Volunteers deal with the most harrowing of mental distress and the most challenging of personal circumstances. Volunteers make the most difficult of decisions about organisations and livelihoods.

And volunteers enable paid staff in our public services to focus more fully on their own roles, complementing and adding value to what they do. The expanding role of volunteers in our hospitals to help improve patient experience is testament to that.

Of course there are political and practical questions to resolve when finances are under pressure, services and jobs at stake. But I will have no truck with those who suggest that volunteering is a problem rather than a solution.

It was saddening that the former prime minister’s theme of a big society lost momentum, and became derided as simply a cover for cuts. The will behind it was real and the principles sound: to encourage and empower people to take control in their own communities. Perhaps it was always too ambitious to embark on this journey at a time of spending constraint. Theresa May is right to say it is not enough for the state to simply get out of the way, often it also has to help.

A national debate about volunteering in public services

But whoever is in charge, it is hard to conceive that we will be able to run public services in the future as we have in the past. We need a national debate about the role of volunteering in the future of our public services. And that debate has to be about more than simply delivering more publicly funded services.

As an analogy, in much of the last century, roads were built on a ‘predict and provide’ basis. Transport planners would study traffic levels, anticipate need for a road and then build it. But build a road, and the traffic increases to take advantage of it. The realisation slowly dawned that this method would in time see the whole country tarmacked. Now, the focus is on finding ways to help people out of their cars, on to buses, trains or bikes.

If only for financial reasons, a similar shift must happen in public services. We need a far greater focus on supporting and enabling communities and neighbours to look after each other, rather than waiting and hoping for a public service to do it. In the NHS and social care, as one health manager recently explained to me, what is needed are volunteers before the front door, to reduce demand and help keep people out of hospital, and volunteers at the back door, to help those who do need hospital treatment to settle back home. On both ends, this is not about delivering more, but using the capacity of communities to help meet and even reduce demand.

There are many charities and volunteers supporting our public services already. An estimated three million volunteer in health and some 500,000 in policing. We must step up our efforts as a sector and as a society to truly value volunteers, and look at ways to create new opportunities for volunteering to make a contribution.

To conceive of volunteers’ dedication as a temporary cover for cuts until the magic spending tap can be turned back on and publicly funded workers take their place is not only unrealistic, it does them a great disservice, and it overlooks the particular distinctive value that volunteers bring. Indeed even were finances not a challenge, we should still be involving volunteers in public services because of the unique value of the contribution they make.

Shared society

The prime minister’s assertion last week that ‘the cult of individualism has taken hold’ was clearly hyperbolic. In our sector alone, the tens of millions who give their time and money are proof that it has not. Last year we saw a significant increase in the number of young people volunteering. The notion of a society of solipsists bears little scrutiny. But that does not mean there is not more we can do to strengthen the bonds between us.

As a society we must encourage and celebrate those who take responsibility for and action in the world around them. Doing so is mission-critical, not just for our sector but for society. And we must not give way to those who accuse volunteering, or charities, of undermining the role of the state in providing services for the public, vital though that is.

Millions of us volunteer because we already have an instinct that it is the right thing to do. In a shared society, there are shared responsibilities, shared struggles and shared burdens. But there is also shared satisfaction, shared reward and shared joy. We can’t build a better society – a shared society, a big society, whatever: a better society – without nurturing this instinct.

This isn’t a call for more government-backed volunteering schemes. We have excellent ones already. If anything, it is time for the sector to renew its commitment to volunteering.

This means investing in the support that volunteering needs, both human and technical. Ensuring we are creating flexible opportunities that fit with people’s lives. Acknowledging that managing volunteers is harder than managing staff and valuing those whose role this is.

Ideally, we would make it as easy for someone to give their time as to give their money. It is no mean challenge but if we get just part of the way there we will be making a significant difference. Many are of course already doing excellent work in this area and I want to support and champion that.

The ripple effects of volunteering benefit us all

But we should encourage volunteering not just as a way to meet the goals of our own organisations, but because promoting participation in all its forms benefits our whole society.

Those who volunteer become more engaged across their lives. Their involvement and their trust begets the same elsewhere. Strengthened social networks mean healthier and happier lives. The ripple effects touch us all.

I believe all institutions in society, certainly those in the public realm, have a responsibility to open themselves up in this way and to actively nurture participation. And we should be modelling the very best practice in our sector.

Sometimes this may mean giving up a little control. But the rewards – greater capacity, strengthened connections with our roots, a cadre of committed advocates – are worth it. In some areas, not just in the voluntary sector but increasingly in the public sector, it will also quite frankly be the only way to maintain services.

It is only by working collaboratively and in partnership with the time and talents of people and communities that we can begin to meet the challenges faced in health and social care, not only in the current challenging economic climate but also to meet the demands that will be placed on the system in the future as we seek to ensure an ageing population can live healthily and independently.

In most cases volunteers are complementing and working alongside paid staff, not replacing them. When you to talk to NHS managers and staff they aren’t concerned about volunteers replacing their jobs, they are concerned about delivering the best care they can and see volunteers as part of the team. The challenge is how best to blend the time and talents of paid staff and volunteers.

Being bold for volunteering

In that context, we need to ensure that volunteering is managed well. That volunteers are adequately trained and supported. This must be a focus for all of us. Because we know that the surest predictor of whether someone carries on volunteering is how good their experience of it was. And for younger people in particular, we know one of the biggest sources of frustration is not knowing whether giving their time made a difference. We need to be aware that a good experience is increasingly interwoven with a sense of achievement, of having had an impact. So we need to ensure we are always reflecting back the difference that volunteering makes.

These won’t always be easy times. But I am determined that we will always be ambitious for volunteering in all its forms.

We will be relentless in promoting the value of volunteering for both individual and social goals. We know that volunteers bring a special added value to a service. We know that volunteering strengthens bonds between neighbours. We know that volunteering helps overcome prejudice. We know that volunteering creates the experiences and connections that lead to better lives.

This is a year in which I want NCVO and our sector to be bold for volunteering, and I would like you to join me.


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Avatar photo Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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