Editorial: Yes to cooperation but no to conformity

One of the contributors to our feature on umbrella organisations this week observes that what the voluntary sector lacks is an institution in the style of the Confederation of British Industry - a large and authoritative organisation that speaks with a single voice and has guaranteed access to government.

It's a theme that's increasingly heard these days, not least from ministers and civil servants, who hanker after the convenience of dealing with a single outfit rather than a multiplicity.

There was a time when the NCVO was, in effect, the CBI of the voluntary sector. But over the past 20 years a number of other organisations with more specialised concerns have been spawned by it or have sprung up independently, and they have grown stronger.

Now the individual interest groups within the voluntary sector have their own distinctive voices, but a single collective point of view is harder to establish. A good case in point is the current disagreement over the line the sector should take over the prospective loss of £70m of Gift Aid as a result of the Chancellor's cut in the basic rate of income tax. No doubt there are some in the Treasury heaving patronising sighs about this and reaching for the well-oiled drawer marked "divide and rule".

So what is more important - speaking with a single voice, or articulating a range of differing and dissenting viewpoints? Surely, it's the latter. It's true that you are more likely to get things done and have a political impact if you do speak with a single voice, and when the sector does reach a consensus it can be very powerful.

But the most valuable and distinctive thing about the sector is authenticity, and that includes having the confidence to disagree and face the consequences rather than enforce a consensus. This might be frustrating for those who live in a world of party conformity and like others to play the same game.

Having said that, there is also scope for greater cooperation and dialogue between the various representative bodies of the voluntary sector. There's sometimes a sense that turf wars and personality clashes are responsible for driving the arguments. No doubt that's exciting for the participants and the press, but is it really in the best interests of the membership of the various organisations and the sector at large?

If, on a scale of one to 10, one is a free-for-all and 10 is His Master's Voice emanating from Third Sector House, then we probably have about four at the moment. Moving it up to about six, but no more than seven, might benefit everyone.

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