Where now for the voluntary sector?

Yesterday I received a phone call from one of the countryʼs top youthwork funders. ʻItʼs bad news, Iʼm afraid,ʼ said the voice on the other end of the line. ʻItʼs never been as tough as this. Of the nine projects we proposed to the Trustees, only four were funded. Thatʼs us done for the year.ʼ Ours was one of nine initiatives from across the whole country shortlisted and recommended for full support, from hundreds of applications.

Itʼs an increasingly common experience in a sector reliant on the generosity and support from others. Money is tight, resources are limited, people are cautious. And in the meantime, need remains critical, with the recession hitting the poorest hardest. The bottom line is that for work to be effective, it has to be resourced. People donʼt want to hear it, but there are no shortcuts. Of course, there is work which is more or less effective, organisations which are more or less efficient, but why should the business of making a difference in children and young peopleʼs lives be cheaper (or less worth investing in) than others?

The voluntary and community sector (VCS) is made up of thousands of groups and organisations: a response to and expression of our collective responsibility and aspirations. It is a complex coalition of cultures and networks, facing major challenges in the months and years ahead. Some of these are programmed into the cultural DNA, whereas others have been given sharp focus by the financial crisis and looming cuts. Either way, if we are to ensure that the sector is not decimated and continues to play a powerful and meaningful role in society, there is work to do.

The challenges we face are oft-quoted and well-known: a lack of stable and sustainable funding, the weight of expectations, increasing levels of paperwork, attitudes towards what we do and who we work with. There are issues which undermine individual organisations: attitudes towards the private and statutory sectors, cultures of dependence and entitlement, a perceived lack of professionalism, a lack of recognition for what is done on limited resources by hard-working people going beyond the call of duty, who could have earned four times as much employing their energies and talents in the private sector. The achievements of VCS agencies are a wonder even in the years of plenty; their fate in the coming, leaner times fills me with fear. Is all the talk of Big Society underpinned by real investment or simply a smokescreen for fast-disappearing support?

In this environment, how do we ensure that the myriad of agencies, charities, organisations who do so much for our society do not simply survive, but also thrive?

Firstly, we must take a good, long look at ourselves. A huge amount is done on very little, but that doesnʼt make it sustainable or of the highest quality. In a less commercial environment, the idiosyncrasies and relationships within a charity can relegate the most obvious necessities to missed opportunities. There is an edge to our work, but sometimes an amateurishness to our efficiency. We must consider how we do things and why, and what needs to change: whether that is at ground level, in our business operations, or at Board level. We must marry our experience with the ever-evolving environment in which we operate.

Secondly, we must explore the alternatives for sustaining our work. Much of this is around partnership, in some form or other, whether with like agencies or across sectors. The Hub in Kings Cross is an excellent example of not only harnessing a business model for social good, or even of providing an ethical product, but of bringing together professionals from entirely different walks of life. Here, a youthworker meets a banker who meets an artist who meets a policy wonk. People who would never have crossed paths not only encounter each other, but in so doing, they create. In developing partnerships and exploiting their potential, we must look at the resources we do have rather than those we hanker after. At the Winch we have a long-serving staff, a fantastic site, a proud tradition of making a difference. Other charities will have other strengths which they can develop and trade: in order to sustain and improve the work.

Thirdly, others who have an interest in the success of the voluntary sector (and, assuming that people generally want to live in places free of fear, knowing their neighbours, with no crime Iʼd say thatʼs all of us) should also look at what they can offer in this synthesis of give and take. A local tenants and residents association has offered space for our children to grow fruit, and weʼve asked whether theyʼd like assistance in applying for funds. The Wet Fish Cafe, a terrific establishment in West Hampstead, ran a charity dinner donating £5 a ticket to the Winch, in exchange benefiting from increased exposure and publicity. Local authorities in particular should take note of this: patronage must be replaced with partnership, short-term targets with the bigger picture, ivory tower plans with investment in people with innovative, sustainable ideas. The Winch is a perfect example: give us security and support in our building and we will commit to delivering on a vision of the voluntary sector which is sustainable, inspirational and as committed as ever to our mission. In this sense, change on only one side will be futile: we are all partners in building a better society.

In all of this, our responsibility is to maintain focus: the opportunities presented by partnership may be exciting but not always relevant. We must commit to maintain our principles of being relational and responsive. We must do what we say we will and be honest about our failures, understanding this teaches as much as the successes. We must challenge attitudes of entitlement and self- justification, and take responsibility for financial sustainability. However, our ultimate success will hinge on the actions and reciprocity of others: the local authority, the private sector, people who live and work in our area, people like you and I. Back in 2002, speaking at the United Nations, Kofi Annan said, ʻIn an age where community involvement and partnerships with civil society are increasingly being recognised as indispensable, there is clearly a growing potential for cooperative development and renewal worldwide.ʼ I only hope we recognise and harness this potential here in north London.

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