Is the voluntary sector losing its independence?

I’ve just read the sixth annual report on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector (PDF, 1.2MB), which has been published this morning. It’s fair to say it’s glum: indeed, I am moved to suggest that it is unduly pessimistic. In an assessment of the voluntary sector’s independence in 2017, the author argues that things have worsened since their 2015 report and that threats to our independence have worsened considerably.

Heaven knows I’m miserable now

The producers of Fast and Furious 8 know that there’s nothing like sticking to a tried and tested formula when it comes to sequels, even if the returns are diminishing. In the latest release, the author again sees threats everywhere: a government apparently not interested in working with the voluntary sector; reduced access to judicial review; self-censorship by charities as a result of harsher regulation or bullying from ministers; poor commissioning and procurement; politically biased regulation; the sock puppet narrative of some ideologues; and, finally, charities chasing money rather than focusing on their mission. Just don’t read the report while listening to anything by The Smiths.

Some of these problems are real and current. It’s debatable whether the problems are a threat to independence rather than sustainability or impact, but the more important point is that the report implies that they are all wide-ranging and, well, threatening. Some of the issues are a threat, but to a narrow range of organisations – remember three-quarters of charities don’t get any government funding, for example. Others are wider ranging but arguably less threatening. This nuance is missing.

I think we need to remind ourselves that a defining characteristic of our sector is resilience.

Every silver lining has a cloud

The report does highlight positive changes to the environment – albeit grudgingly. Most significantly, the introduction of new standards for government grant-making and the dropping of the anti-advocacy clauses that these standards replaced is acknowledged. Brexit and devolution are highlighted as potential opportunities for our sector. Nevertheless, every silver lining has a cloud: potential funding from dormant accounts is likely to be too slow to appear; and the new grant guidelines are ‘overkill, and mean that grants are now no different from contracts’.

Solutions are brief and the sole responsibility of the prime minister, no less. There are some reasonable if not particularly innovative recommendations in there. It will be difficult to find many who disagree with the call to implement Lord Hodgson’s review of the Lobbying Act, for example. Indeed, the cross-party House of Lords charities committee recently recommended this.

But others will be reproduced in my forthcoming handbook of how not to make policy recommendations. Among them, the call to ‘provide a genuine seat at the table of policy-making and service design for the social sector, nationally and locally’. Good luck to the civil servant who’s handed that one to action. If you want to have real influence you have to make practical, tangible recommendations, not vague wish-lists.

Independence: an alternative narrative

So, I’m sceptical about some of the tone and messaging in the report. That’s not because I don’t care about campaigning or advocacy by voluntary organisations. It’s not because I am complacent about the difficult challenges faced by organisations of all sizes. I’m sceptical about the report for several reasons, but there are two issues that motivated me to reflect on it in this blog.

We need to reframe the independence debate

First, if we truly want to argue for a strong, independent voluntary sector, we need to reframe the argument and focus on the positive difference that our sector makes. Over the last few years we’ve been thinking a lot about how we address the biggest threat to charities’ independence, largely ignored by the report: what the public think of us and the issues we campaign on, and whether or not they support us.

Frankly, some people think charities shouldn’t campaign or be political (no, the word party isn’t missing there, before political). They are more likely to be on the political right. Some people think that charities and volunteering should be constrained, that the state should provide. They are more likely to be on the political left. Just telling people of either viewpoint that they are wrong, or that they are doing bad things to us, or that they don’t understand us, doesn’t work. I can’t put it any better than Sonia Sodha did a few days ago:

The good news is that there’s usually a sizeable group of people who are persuadable, at least to some degree, on a particular issue. The way to do it, though, is to find ways of articulating the case for change that appeal to the values that are important to them and their own ways of thinking about the world, rather than trying to change their world view altogether.

We need to focus on the voluntary sector’s strengths

We need to stop telling each other that we’re powerless or that we can’t campaign or make a difference. We can. We do. We are. And the last year is, as usual, characterised by charities successfully campaigning, from the British Red Cross to Reclaim. We probably also need to stop kidding ourselves that those with power see recommendations telling them to share some of it and then do so. That’s not how change happens.

I find it an irony that the report refers to the challenge of too much self-policing of campaigning, brought about legislative or regulatory changes. My argument is that reports that repeat, indeed amplify, these assertions – as this does – are adding to the problem. It’s a bit like the failed approach known as mythbusting. Maybe it’s uppermost in my mind, but contrast this with the recent report from the cross-party House of Lords committee, and its central narrative (PDF, 1.7MB) (completely ignored by this report) that charities are the ‘eyes, ears and conscience of society’. This report is a whopping big boost to the voluntary sector’s independence, particularly if we take forward its recommendations.

The central message from the Lords report we should be sending is that a confident, independent and resilient voluntary sector has many strengths upon which to build. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

There are clearly challenges we have to address.

Maybe one of them is to stop telling ourselves that everything is getting worse.


Image credit: Marc Heleven


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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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