Pressures facing the voluntary sector

Richard Garside
Saturday, 6 June 2009

Given the apparent opportunities to expand their reach in relation to service delivery, it is easy to see the main challenge facing the voluntary sector largely as one of adaptation to the contract culture.

`The reform of public sector provision will require charities to be more business-minded than ever,' the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, Stephen Bubb, has recently argued. `While it will pose great challenges to the sector, it will also provide an opportunity for those who embrace the changes to flourish'.

But what are the nature of the changes that voluntary sector organisations are being asked to embrace? What are the consequences for their identity and values, mission and independence, as well as for their beneficiaries and society more broadly?

This new research suggests that the contract culture poses a significant threat to the character and sustainability of the voluntary sector, particularly of the smaller voluntary and community organisations. We found evidence of organisations making `tragic bargains' in their constant struggle for survival. Bland, generic provision, driven by central and local government priorities, rather than by the professional judgement of voluntary organisations about their client groups' needs, was all too common.

Overall, the picture presented by the research is of a sector under intense pressure to deliver services they often consider to be inadequate, if not counterproductive, against the background of contradictory governmental agendas and an overly bureaucratic, inflexible and conservative funding environment.

The research is based on a relatively small number of organisations, working largely with young black people affected by crime in four cities in England. But it echoes a number of themes that emerged from a debate we hosted earlier this year at King's College London, which explored the dilemmas facing voluntary sector providers in maintaining their independence and financial stability. For all the talk of partnership between government and the voluntary sector, some of those who spoke in the debate felt more like prisoners of funding and commissioning regimes that threatened their independence.

The challenge of this environment is not merely one of voluntary sector adaptation. It is of maintaining the values of quality practices, independent voice and innovation that have always characterised the voluntary sector at its best. The prospect of contract culture calls for more progressive collaborations to protect these values rather than the narrow focus some voluntary infrastructure organisations have thus far had on voluntary sector adaptation.

Policy, purpose and pragmatism: dilemmas for voluntary and community organisations working with black young people affected by crime is available free to download from this website.