Cathy Pharoah: Community groups should not be treated as Cinderellas of the sector

Little is known about community associations, but major charities raise as much as half of their donations through community fundraising, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

As the sector gears up to play its part in localism and decentralisation, it will have to know more about what its other half is up to. In other words, it will need to place a much stronger focus on the 'community' half of the 'voluntary and community sector'.

Although 'community' is probably one of the most over-used terms in sector policy and research over the past decade or so, most of the action has, in practice, been directed at the large, national, registered voluntary organisations. The excuse was that much of the rest of the sector - the community bit - was small-scale, difficult to find and too numerous to be counted. Estimates of the number of such below-the-radar groups have varied from 500,000 to almost 900,000 - that's anywhere from three to five times the size of the registered charity sector.

Despite the extent to which many national charities depend on operations at a local level, there is little information about local participation in local community associations through membership, volunteering or giving, or about variations between local areas. Yet some major national charities raise as much as half of their donations through community fundraising.

There have been other barriers to getting to grips with the community sector, such as the difficulty of representation. The Charity Commission recently reported on the low proportion of young trustees, and some minority groups are also poorly represented.

There are a great many vacancies on trustee boards and user representation has also been a challenge, although it is well recognised that an important way to lend power to the sector's voice would be to strengthen user representation at governance level. The need for wide community representation on boards is likely to be even greater now, given the recent funding cuts to the minority and equalities infrastructure bodies.

Some of the knowledge gap is being addressed in the Northern Rock Foundation's research on north-west England and Cumbria. Dedicated, below-the-radar studies have already suggested that more deprived areas of the region have larger numbers of community organisations. Forthcoming work will show that they have a strongly local focus, with a heavy reliance on volunteers, and are by no means all small.

Capitalising on community strengths and assets will be essential to building the big society, and the community organisers programme should bring a renewed focus on what has sometimes been seen, and experienced, as the Cinderella of the third sector.

As we take stock of what the future might hold for us, one of the first steps could be to abandon unhelpful references to the voluntary and community sectors as if they were different entities, to reconnect with local roots and to move local giving and participation up the scale of investment and PR priority.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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