Q. What did you think of the way the party manifestos talked about the sector?
A. In a bizarre election, the way the sector featured was even more bizarre because of its virtual absence from the campaigning and the manifestos. It perfectly mirrored the self-obsession of those in and around government. This must have been what it was like in the 1930s, with terrible social inequality and suffering only partly alleviated by an ignored and neglected voluntary sector. Beveridge, thou shouldst be living at this hour...
Q. Many of our local branches have begun to run some form of children's activity in the past few years, usually at the weekends and usually supervised by the adult members rather than paid helpers. We drew up a code of practice about 10 years ago, which is mainly common sense. Do we need to go through the palaver of a safeguarding policy, disclosure and barring and all that stuff?
A. Unfortunately, you must. No amount of policies and vetting will protect your children from someone intent on mischief, but if you don't have those measures in place you'll have fallen at the first hurdle if something goes wrong.
Q. We have always taken pride in interacting with our very large membership. In the past we held a lot of meetings around the country, but came to realise that only a limited cross-section of the members attended and we were getting a very partial range of opinions. They were also very expensive and labour-intensive. Now we are using surveys instead to gauge opinion; it means we can ask about broad or specific issues, but the members still grumble that we don't take them seriously. Any ideas?
A. Surveys are a cheap and easy way of collecting opinions at all levels. But it's impersonal and it isn't interactive - there's no talkback, no opportunity to modify opinions and, as with meetings, only a proportion of your members want to complete surveys. It can actually make your organisation seem more, not less, impersonal. Relying on a single channel is probably the wrong approach: even though it's more expensive, you need to use as many as you can. Reinstate some of the meetings, use whichever social media your members use, make your print magazine more interactive and consider an annual conference. Ask me again in three years when you've done all that...
Q. We have been awarding very large grants to other bodies, both public and charitable, for the creation of new services and centres over many years. The effect of austerity has started to work its way through and at least one has changed the service completely from the one we funded; another is proposing to use the purpose-built centre for something completely different. Should we be asking for our grants to be returned?
A. First, look at the conditions originally attached to the grants: if donors made gifts specifically in relation to that facility or service, there are clear grounds for requiring the grants to be returned. Without doubt there will be a lot of grumbling from the grant recipients about how demand has changed, their priorities have changed, they can't find the cash to repay the grant, how difficult it would be to maintain the original services and so on. Underlying all that talk is the damage to their reputation if they are seen to be misusing charitable funds. You can't concern yourselves with all that: you have to exercise proper stewardship. Talk to Macmillan Cancer Support: it has been handling this kind of situation for decades.
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