An independent voluntary sector: the long goodbye?

Independence of spirit begets independence of mind.  Kill or constrict that spirit, then voice and action become stilted or stilled.   Individuals, replete with verve and spirit succumb, or feel required to succumb, to institutional anaemia, one symptom of which is the valorisation of ‘pragmatism’ as the overarching, but unspoken,  organisational value.

Pragmatism tends to be self-justifying. By its nature it lends itself to assessing each move or settlement as the only one ‘practically’ available. ‘We are where we are’ and where we are is here, a place not so much of our making, but a nifty accommodation with what we thought was possible.  What was thought possible was already discounted goods because where pragmatism reigns supreme, other reference points are paled-out and diminished.

Is this an argument against pragmatism as such?  To hold such a position would be absurd.  But to notice the potentially corrosive effects of unrestrained pragmatism – when it comes to be seen as a free-floating  virtue – is, at the very least, to pose necessary questions, ones we all, one way and another, have to face, individually, organisationally.

Which brings me to the voluntary or ‘third’ sector.

Voluntary sector: arm of local and national state

Of course, to speak of this ‘sector’ in one all-embracing, undifferentiated  breath  is to obscure many necessary distinctions.   But for the purposes of this piece, I am not required to undertake a forensic examination of the scene.

The third sector is increasingly an arm of the local and national state from which it seeks funding.   This funding is not ‘funding’ as understood, say, thirty or forty years ago, but now more likely to be payment for fulfilling a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with outputs and/or outcomes specified, too often crudely monitored.   Increasingly such SLA’s are awarded after a process of competitive tendering.  Here,  we see more and more of what I cannot but hold to be the unedifying spectacle of charitable organisations competing with each other – each and all presumably viewing themselves as the best possible expression, and means of securing, public benefit[1].

Quite what the difference is between charities competing with each other, and private sector organisations competing with each other – and, likely to increase, charities competing with commercial providers – is difficult to discern.  Except perhaps that commercial companies are constructed to compete.   There was a rumour that the voluntary or charitable sector marched to a different drum beat.

Since it is so often a service that voluntary sector organisations bid or apply for, any funding received is in effect restricted to fulfilling that purpose.  Hang the organisation’s wider purpose or what they think their approach or service should be.   A note here: that wider purpose not infrequently includes ‘campaigning’.  However, mere insertion of the word ‘campaigning’ into a charity’s annual report or web site does not of itself constitute campaigning.  Nor does ‘community engagement’ or ‘community participation’ meaningfully identify what is meant by campaigning.

‘Campaigning’ implies conflict – political conflict[2].  And independence of spirit and voice are its prerequisites.   The latest report by the Independence Panel, ‘Independence under threat: The Voluntary Sector in 2013’ worries about this:

‘Threats to independence of voice. As many organisations fear for their survival, self-censorship is becoming a significant problem. For those that do speak out, there is a growing climate of opinion against the campaigning activities of charities.


‘The Government recently advised local authorities to stop funding what it calls ‘fake charities’ that ‘lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding’[3].

But it is the Panel’s first report (2012) that astutely recognised the incremental, hardly noticed, still less remarked upon, drip, dripping away of the independent spirit:

‘For many, survival, rather than concepts, is the issue at present. But it is precisely when hard choices have to be made that the values of an organisation and the reasons for its independence need to be recognised and supported, both within the sector itself and by government, regulators, donors and private sector contractors.

‘Losing independence can be a gradual, almost imperceptible, process that was neither intended nor foreseen; it can also be contagious, as organisations compete with one another at a time of scarce resources. It may be defined by what is not said, or not done, rather than by what is.’

The syndrome described above, necessarily leads to a consideration of the role of trustees as distinct from remunerated staff.   One of the dangers for a charitable organisation is that it becomes a sort of funding groupie, promiscuously seeking funding here there and everywhere.   It can also lead to a lack of discrimination about sponsorship – all funding gratefully received, no matter the source.  The organisation becomes its own purpose, where perhaps what is required is a fundamental examination of ends and means.  Serial fundraising can distract it from  posing uncomfortable questions to itself.   This is a subject in itself – for another time. All that I want to do here is notice the danger.

Non-government charitable funders

Voluntary and third sector organisations also rely heavily on charitable funders: Trusts, BIG and others.  These seem, too often, to merely echo statist modes of thought and action.  Many are utterly conventional, replicating the managerial and organisational orthodoxies of the time trapped in the language of milestones, outputs, outcomes and requiring something called ‘business planning’.

Incidentally, it must be of some significance that BIG now refers to its applicants as ‘customers’.  It may strike us that this use of language is a little queer.  My understanding is that the ‘customer ‘ is always right; and it is customer demand which, by semi-magical market forces, prompts and shapes the nature of services proffered.  I have received no intelligence from those BIG applicants I know that they feel like customers.

The sense one gets of all this is that many non-government funders are risk averse.  Though claiming a commitment to ‘innovation’ there seems little recognition in practice that ‘innovation’ implies a reasonable chance of failure – failure to ‘deliver’, at least in the terms of the initial grant application.  But few if any grant recipient will feel comfortable admitting to failure or mistake, however reasonable.  This is the point where grant giver and grant receiver become complicit in the need to claim almost everything is a success.  This need to proclaim success – the next application depends on it – shrivels the critical faculties and spawns any number of  self-congratulatory public pronouncement about just how effective that funded programme really was.

Still, it’s comforting to see that many funders are clearly up for a laugh.  This provocation to hilarity is surely what is intended when grant applicants are asked how they propose to make their project – should it be funded – ‘sustainable’ once the funding period is complete.  This in the context of funding regimes predicated on (relatively) short-term, project funding.

If I were a rich man

‘Life’, as the late John Lennon pointed out, ‘is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans’.  But fierce and reductive project management practices cannot cope  with the essential changeableness of real life.

Were I to run my own charitable fund, I think I would do two things:

  1. fund core functions.  I would set as one of my objectives underpinning the independence of the charitable entity.  I would set a ‘Bolshiness’ test; that is, I’d want to see evidence of public lobbying, public diagreements.  Is there any funder out there that will do this?
  2. invite applications for projects that stood at least a 50% chance of failure in terms of the original application.  Readers who have popped in to this blog before will see immediately that such applications are amenable to a risk-benefit mode of assessment.  But I digress.

Neo-liberal economic system

What appears to be happening is that neo-liberal economic doctrine is rolling over a sector that once stood, in some sense or other, to one side of the market.  No longer.  The sector is now being systematically ‘marketised’ (sorry, not nice word).  We have seen how the language of the marketplace – ‘customers’ – has slipped almost unnoticed into the charitable realm and how a ‘level playing field’ is being created between charitable organisations, and charitable and commercial organisations.

But of course that ‘level playing field’ is not level at all.  Neo-liberal economic practice tends to favour the large corporation. Certainly in the commercial sector  we have seen the growth of almost monopolistic  corporations that in practice limit competition.  They too, are the organisations with the internal capacity to bid for contracts, to absorb the costs of the bids that fail, to deal with complex, involved procurement processes, to have sufficient insurance cover and so forth.  Similarly, we seem to be seeing – this based on anecdotal evidence – the corporatisation of the charitable sector as well, with the larger charitable organisations being those with the capacity to churn out bids; and also being the ones that offer – in the minds of the fund holder – the assurance of ‘delivery’ because of their size and internal resource base.  This, in practice, sometimes turns out to offer a false sense of assurance.  But here ‘evidence’, in this evidence-based world, appears not to be readily accepted.

If the trends discussed here continue,  then we can expect a less diverse – and more compliant – charitable sector.


No funder appears to recognise, still less feel the need to assess, the impact – in time, money, morale – on charitable organisations’ engaging in what amounts to persistent, serial fundraising and bid writing.

Dressing up

Charitable organisations deploy much effort and inventiveness in angling the expression of their key activities to fit the latest priority fund holders have anointed as their current concern.  Applicants are good at ‘dressing up’.  It’s as though each charity has a dressing up box in the corner of the office from which they extract suitable garb to don in order that applications look as though they are meeting the latest criteria: green is the current hue – to demonstrate ecological sensibility; along with skipping ropes and exercise machines – and play facilities, of course – to tackle obesity.

My guess is most applications fail.   My own further guess is that a truly shameful amount of money and time is being diverted away from actual work on the ground by the need perpetually to bid and apply for funding.  There simply has to be a better way.

No grounds for optimism

At the moment we seem to be heading – if we are not already there – towards the point where, first, independent voices are stifled or stilled; second, that the nature of activity on the ground is subservient to a funder’s agenda – state or charitable – and not to the promptings of the independent, value-led mission of the charitable organisation.

From where I stand, the position is grim.  It is also difficult  to deny that the charitable sector is – feels required to be – a partner in the undermining of its own raison d’être.  As the Independence Panel says:

‘The situation is dangerous. When independence is lost by a significant number of organisations, trust in and public support for the whole sector may end up being eroded and even organisations with strong independence may feel the cold. Society will certainly feel the impact, with diverse voices becoming increasingly silent, narrowing political debate, and charities looking to their contract terms rather than their mission when vulnerable people turn up on their doorstep for support.’

[1] This can also lead to the manufacture of unnecessary or spurious ‘partnership’ bids/applications.  Those occasions where little is actually gained from the notional partnership other than dividing up an already small pie; and the opportunity to plonk one’s logo on documents.  This is partnership whose primary purpose is public relations. As with pragmatism, ‘partnership’ is not a free-floating good.

[2] Though not necessarily party political – and specifically not party political so far as registered charities are concerned.

[3] This is referenced in the report at ’50 ways to save: examples of sensible savings in local government, Department for Communities and Local Government. December 2012′

4 responses to “An independent voluntary sector: the long goodbye?

  1. Thanks for responses, and the rather depressing confirmation that my thoughts are not misplaced. It’s interesting, necessary too, to consider some of the potential implications of the what has been said thus far.

    I have argued that, in effect, structurally, the voluntary/charitable sector has become reliant on income sources that systematically undermine its capacity for independent thought and action; and these organisations in too many cases are bending themselves to fulfilling client objectives which, only by dint of sophistry, can be made to accord with what should be their own priorities. If this is the case, and if it remains the case, then arguments against private sector organisations bidding on an equal footing with voluntary/charitable sectors for ‘delivery’ lose at least some of their force. In practice, we are pretty well there now: private sector organisations compete on a notional level playing field with voluntary/charitable sector organisations. (Incidentally, points made here specifically exclude the NHS which is both a more complex issue, and where other considerations need to be taken into account).

    We may need to remind ourselves that independence is underpinned by voluntary commitment and endeavour (I’m not talking about volunteer programmes, they are beside the point here); and unencumbered funds. Put another way, it can be as important not to chase funding opportunities as it may be to pursue them. Funding can too easily take the form of sequential bouts of intensive care, the effect of which is to shackle organisations to the orthodoxies and priorities of government or funder.

    Now, that’s a crude characterisation and takes no account of the different types of organisations and purposes. So, for example, it may make sense for a local charity – say a CAB, or a local play association – to hang on in there, in part in hope of different, and better times and because, more intangibly and subtly, of the networks, informal and formal, that have developed over time. But this will not always be the case. Sometimes it will be better, more strategic, more honest, to pack up shop. Or to rethink radically what the organisation is about and to ask, for example: to what extent are professional, paid staff a block on fulfilling strategic, long-term charitable aims, rather than a furtherance of them? Paid staff have legitimate concerns about their own position. It is a step too far to say that those interests necessarily coincide with the ‘deeper’ mission of a voluntary/charitable organisation – sometimes those individual interests run counter to the fulfilment of wider purposes.

    For a long time now I have felt that the sort of organisations I have worked for and with for more years than I care to think about, need to revert to the voluntary, unencumbered basis that spawned so many of them. Service ‘delivery’ can be done by remunerated staff under structures that allow their individual interest to be legitimately pursued. The job of campaigning, of speaking out, of holding to account, of questioning the local and national state and charitable funders is done best by those able to say what they mean, to mean what they say, and to determine for themselves when and how to say it.


  2. Great article Bernard. I’ve been struggling with this issue myself for the last few years in my former role of Chief Exec of a play association, of which I am now Chair of the Board of Trustees.
    There was a time when the role of a charity was to fill in the bits that the state – whether local or national government – left out. It was recognised that smaller local charities were ‘closer to the ground’ and more able to react and respond to the needs of people who weren’t being helped by the more cumbersome government machinery. They could apply for grants to do the things they knew were missing and important.
    However, now and increasingly the agenda is set by the local authority who commission services they want, or trusts who decide what their own priorities are. If a charities aims don’t fit with these agendas then they miss out.
    So at the moment we struggle on. Just having got a commission from the local authority that has tenuous outputs via a process that was completely controlled by the Finance Dept who didn’t really give a fig about what it was we were actually proposing to do. And then at the last minute the bean counters reduced the value of the contract by 20%, but stiil expect the same outcomes.
    It makes me wonder whether the effort is still worth it, and I know I’m not the only one.


  3. A really excellent piece Bernard. I also concur wih Arthur’s comments above. As an Executive of a regional play association currently pursuing chaitable status, i did find myself nodding along whilst reading this. Charity’s are still ‘in the same box’ and are largely driven by the same dark hands in the shadows that drive the economic slavery we have been duped into via gradualism over generations. It is often difficult to spot and explain to others, but this is bang on. Staying true to the fourth playwork principle gets more challnging when it comes down to decisions around do I sell out to pay the mortgage? or adhere to the underpinning ethical framework of my chosen profession? I am not a sell out…..but it does make sustainability business planning that bit more complex ! I feel that Playwork is one cog in a very big machine. By ourselves we may not change the world, but we certainiy cotribute to the reclamation of humanity (and reality!)


  4. It’s a little eerie seeing what I have been thinking for the last few years set down in print.

    An example of one aspect: a few years ago, I found it difficult to understand, why CWDC awarded contracts for training programmes in ‘Playwork Leadership and Management’ to organisations which had no experience at all of playwork, and employed no trainers with any experience of playwork. One contract went to a small vocational college not 2 miles away from a respected university that runs a respected degree in playwork. Another went to an organisation which delivered training for schools, but all was not lost: the person running the playwork programme had some experience of working with under-5s. To avoid typists finger, I’ll simply sum up by saying: ‘managerialism gone mad’. Managing people who work with children is not the same as managing a shoe shop or a branch of Kwik-Fit.

    There is no evidence, that I am aware of, that CWDC made any attempt to advertise for, or sought out, people with the admittedly unusual combination of playwork and management experience (Disclosure – I include myself in that ambit.) A cursory ring-round would have turned up my name and the names of others with a track record in the playwork field. CWDC is no more, and deservedly so.

    Why does this come about?

    Partly speed, and hurry and reactivitity replacing strategy and proactivity.


    Partly – contracts. Rules for procurement, set down, I believe, by the previous Labour government, ironically as part of its opening up government contracts to small local suppliers. Training is not toilet roll or copier paper, yet it seems to be procured in the same way. Contracts only open to organisations that turn over £250k (or is it £500k?), per annum.

    But that wouldn’t stop those contractors hiring experienced tutors, would it?

    And yet they (almost exclusively) didn’t.

    Is a college in the vol sec? Is a company selling training to schools and winning CWDC contracts? If said company is registered as a not-for-profit, does that make it part of the vol sec?

    Thank you, Bernard, for a dose of pure, bracing gloom*.

    *A collection of short stories by Thomas M. Disch was once described as ”a dose of pure, bracing gloom“.


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