Editorial: The time is right for the Baring Foundation's new commission on the future of the voluntary sector

It is nearly 20 years since the last full examination - since then, all sorts of questions have been thrown into the air and need to be examined, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

It is 19 years since the report of the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, chaired by Professor Nicholas Deakin. This report paved the way for most of the important developments in the sector since then: the Charities Act 2006, with its definition of charitable purposes and a new public benefit regime; the creation of the charity tribunal and the charitable incorporated organisation legal form; and the establishment of the Compact and the Office for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office.

This week the National Council for Voluntary Organisations announced that it would be contributing £100,000 towards a new commission on the future of the sector that has been announced by the Baring Foundation, which has also supported the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector. This panel has just concluded its four-year rolling analysis with a sobering final report that says the threats to the sector’s independence are continuing to get worse under four out of six headings. Under the other two, it considers matters to be at a low ebb and getting no better.

The question of independence is therefore likely to be one of the main subjects examined by the new commission for which the Baring Foundation is now fundraising. But the independence panel has rightly argued that the debate should also be a fundamental one that seeks to develop greater understanding about what is distinctive and valuable about charities and the voluntary sector and leads to a new settlement between it and key partners – especially the state.

The new commission is clearly a good idea: some of the issues raised in the Deakin report remain unresolved or have acquired fresh dimensions, and new questions and dilemmas have arisen. The last two decades have been turbulent and full of change, and all sorts of questions about the sector are up in the air. Social enterprise and social investment are expanding; taxation of charities remains controversial; what Deakin called "the contract culture" – it sounds rather quaint now – has moved centre stage; fundraising is more controversial than it used to be; and the role and constitution of the Charity Commission are under renewed scrutiny.

It goes without saying that the members and remit of the commission need to be carefully chosen to ensure credibility and avoid the risk of being dismissed as the usual suspects playing the usual tunes. It will need buy-in from as wide a range as possible of the political spectrum if it is going to get anywhere. The Deakin commission was fortunate in that it reported just as the political tide was turning in favour of significant change for the sector. This time around, with the most uncertain election in living memory about to take place, that is far from guaranteed and it will be harder to make the case.

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