David Robinson, one of the founders of Community Links, has raised the concerns that many in the charity - if you must 'third' sector - have been raising over the past several months. These concerns are that, for all the Big Society rhetoric, the impact of spending cuts (and lets be honest the decision of places like Wakefield to cut the voluntary sector before cutting their own payroll) is causing a great deal of pain and upset - plus even a little bit of anger.
The Big Society should be this sector's moment - the coming of age for social enterprise and a reawakening of mutuals, co-operatives and social action. But David Robinson sets out the concerns well - adressing the Prime Minister he says:
You have described Community Links as “one of Britain’s most inspiring community organisations”. Over 1,500 volunteers helped deliver our services to more than 30,000 people last year, supporting staff who themselves often got to know us as service users or volunteers, and the majority of whom live locally. We are concerned about the future of our community here in East London, and we are concerned also about the future of our own organisation. Organisations like us are surely the bedrock of the Big Society, and we are wobbling.
Now on one level this is about special pleading from an organisation the relies too heavily on state funding - as David Robinson points out, the changes to the welfare system, the withdrawal of legal aid for benefits appeals and local government spending reductions all present problems for organisations like Community Links. Yet David Robinson makes the mistake - to my thinking - of giving succour to those who argue for the voluntary sector remaining essentially a government sub-contractor dependent on commissions and grants rather than leading on innovative social actions.
To make the change organisations like Community Links need support - support for that change not an injection of cash to keep them in the way to which they've become accustomed. And the change (and I hope government, local and national, understands this too) is to allow choices, decisions and initiatives to be made at the most local of levels. The great Christian charities of the 19th century - what became the Children's Society, Barnardo's and NCH - did not start on an assumption that government funding was there to support the organisation but on the basis that something needed to be done. Edward Rudolf, Tom Stephenson and Dr Barnardo didn't wait for government to hand over money before they started helping children they got on with the job at hand - raising money through churches and other sources to do the work needed.
Men like David Robinson come from that tradition and I hope that the plea in David's letter is for relief allowing voluntary organisations the chance to live again the reality of their name - voluntary, uncoerced, independent and radical. Please let it not be special pleading.