Editorial: Peaks and valleys in sector fortunes

Does the NCVO's UK Civil Society Almanac 2012 show that we're heading for rock bottom, asks deputy editor Andy Ricketts

Andy Ricketts
Andy Ricketts

The UK Civil Society Almanac 2012, published this week by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, provides a wealth of data on all aspects of the voluntary sector and civil society as a whole.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who has happened to glance in the direction of a newspaper over the past four years, the picture it paints is rather bleak.

Income has been squeezed, the value of grants has tumbled, the workforce is shrinking and, despite the efforts of successive governments, volunteering levels remain largely flat, the publication shows.

Perhaps the most striking aspect is the sudden jump in the sector's expenditure. In previous years, a comfortable cushion existed between the sector's in and out columns. But this buffer, which sat at £2.5bn in 2007/08, shrank to just £400m two years later, the data shows.

On the one hand, this could be used to demonstrate that the sector is responding to society's needs in a difficult time and ramping up its services to help those in need.

But another significant factor is that the cost of providing the goods and services upon which many rely is also increasing. Inflation, which the NCVO says cost the sector an extra £2.3bn between 2008 and 2010, is the major villain here. Its impact has left many charities struggling to stay alive.

We should not blithely assume that all spending decisions in the sector are good ones, and this period of austerity will force any that have been too loose with the purse strings to pause and take stock. In the main, however, charities are judicious stewards and many have been forced to turn their attentions to reducing their staffing costs to try to balance the books.

The NCVO estimates that these cuts meant that the sector lost eight employees every hour in the first three quarters of 2011 - a shocking figure.

Sir Stuart Etherington, the umbrella body's chief executive, says in his foreword to the almanac that 2007/08 could be regarded as the peak of the voluntary sector's golden age. We hope that the valley floor is not far below.

Read our analysis about the Almanac's results

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