Sunday, 2 November 2014

The real voluntary sector - or the Big Society the sector's leaders want to kill off...


The Community Development Foundation has published a report looking at what it calls the 'community sector'. This is the myriad of small local groups and charities - CDF estimate between 600,000 and 900,000 of these groups up and down the country. It is the real voluntary sector because, as CDF point out these groups mostly have an income below £2,000 per year and rely entirely on the efforts of enthusiastic volunteers. Nor have those volunteers been 'recruited', 'checked' and 'trained' in the manner of volunteers for big charities and 'voluntary' organisations.

The other thing about this real voluntary sector is where it gets its money from:

Figures from registered micro-groups suggest that community groups receive the largest portion of their funding from individual donations (65%). Other sources include investment (17%), other voluntary sector organisations (12%), government (4%) and the private sector (2%).

The important figure to note here is the 4% from government. Contrast this with the grand charities - Oxfam got £159.8m from various statutory sources in 2012, over 55% of its income and the same story can be told for Barnardos, for The Children's Society and many other big charities. Without grants and fees from government the 'voluntary' sector would be a whole lot smaller.

The government in its various guises provides around 35% of the income for the voluntary sector and, as we can see here, this overwhelmingly goes to large organisations. Partly this reflects the way in which the sector has developed over the years and especially the changes that took place after the election of the 1997 Labour government. That government set about transforming the role of the voluntary sector - or at least the larger organisations within that sector - from independent charities to agents of government policy.

So when the idea of the Big Society arrived the leadership of the voluntary sector saw immediately that the idea of voluntary social action threatened their control of the idea of 'voluntarism'. Rather than voluntary action being seen as the initiative of the volunteers, the sector's leadership preferred to see voluntary action as something to be managed by paid professionals. And this leadership sought out allies within the organisations that fund the big voluntary sector organisations - local councils, the agencies of the lottery, the Arts Council and elements in Whitehall and academia. A coalition of resistance to new voluntary initiatives was created and this set about demonising the idea of Big Society - 'just a cover for cuts', 'neoliberalism' was the cry as the paid professionals in the voluntary sector protected their interests.

The continued existence and success of the 'community' sector is a reminder of how out-of-touch that voluntary sector leadership has become - by focusing almost entirely on protecting state income and advocacy for the larger organisations that dominate the sectors lobbying the professional leadership of the voluntary sector has, in effect, allowed smaller organisations that make up most of the sector to sink or swim. These groups and organisations don't know about the conferences, the workshops and the action groups, they aren't connected to the networks of consultants, managers and directors that dominate the discussion about the work of voluntary action and their voice is lost in special pleading or calls for more funding.

The Big Society was the chance to put these groups centre stage, to celebrate the everyday voluntary action that sticks communities together. It may be that recession and the struggle to make the national budget's sums add up rather meant government took its eye off the ball but, at the same time, the professional leadership of the voluntary sector chose to be agents of the state rather than champions of the volunteer. In short that leadership failed the sector by campaigning to kill the Big Society.


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