Interview: Vandna Gohil

The Voice4Change director tells John Plummer she wants sector support in a campaign to get the organisation's funding back

Vandna Gohil
Vandna Gohil

Voice4Change England has not been short of sympathy since it lost £276,000 of Office for Civil Society funding last month.

Several organisations have expressed surprise at the potentially fatal loss of income for the policy group for black and minority ethnic charities, and have praised its work.

But the gap between warm words and actually campaigning for a U-turn by the OCS appears to be so wide that few are willing to cross it.

Voice4Change has asked eight of the nine voluntary organisations chosen for the new £8.2m strategic partner transition fund to support its campaign, which calls on the OCS to reinstate it as a partner and use the £800,000 that had been allocated to support equality organisations.

The group includes influential bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the chief executives body Acevo and Volunteering England. The Institute of Fundraising was not approached because Voice4Change had no previous contact with it.

"I'm not overwhelmed by the response," says Vandna Gohil, director of Voice4Change. She says one or two have written to the civil society minister, Nick Hurd, but the only organisation she singles out for praise is the local infrastructure group Navca and its chief executive, Kevin Curley.

Watershed moment

The OCS did not fund any equality charities and Gohil believes the voluntary sector should take a stand against this. "I do feel the strategic partners have a responsibility," says Gohil. "For me, this is a watershed moment as to whether they stand up for equalities. Quite a few were keen to have a sentence in their bids saying they were keen to work with Voice4Change, which now seems like a tick-box exercise because it hasn't materialised when it matters."

Voice4Change has also started a petition to support its campaign, which has about 300 signatures, and Virendra Sharma, Labour MP for Ealing Southall, has tabled an early day motion in the Commons that has so far attracted 20 signatories.

Gohil fears the OCS decision reflects a misguided approach in government towards equality. Ministers, she says, increasingly want to use mainstream groups to promote equality rather than continue to rely on groups with a specific remit for race, gender, disability or sexuality.

"There is a complete change of ideology," says Gohil. "But when you look at the nine organisations that have been funded - and no disrespect to them - they are big, established organisations that don't in any sense represent the diversity of the sector.

"What equalities groups are the government going to consult with? We want to be able to influence government policy, but it doesn't look like it will happen."

Legal challenge

Voice4Change and the Women's Resource Centre, another unsuccessful bidder, are considering a legal challenge to the OCS.

Gohil claims the OCS equality impact assessment was vague and did not answer some questions fully. "Given the enormity of what's at stake, they haven't considered the impact on groups with the rigour they should have," she says.

The stakes are certainly high for Voice4Change, which has been brought to its knees by the loss of funding from the OCS and the now-defunct infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders at the same time. "The reality is we might not be here in three to six months," says Gohil.

The OCS has indicated it isn't prepared to reinstate Voice4Change or dip into the under-spend, saying £8.2m is enough for the programme to achieve its objectives. So Gohil faces an almighty challenge: "But we owe it to our stakeholders and people who have confidence in us to make sure we don't just accept a completely unfair and unjust decision."

The demise of Capacitybuilders has weakened the nine regional BME networks that it funded to support BME charities. The Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations said its future was precarious after it also lost strategic partner funding.

Now Voice4Change, which has seven staff at its London base, also faces the precipice. It was founded in 2007 by 19 collaborating organisations that felt the BME voice wasn't being heard at policy level, and it received charitable status only this year. "We are the embodiment of that vision," says Gohil. "There wasn't any other organisation representing the diversity of the BME sector."

Gohil prefers to see all this as an opportunity for independent funders to show their support for equality, but she knows time is against her. "I'm an optimist and a realist, and I have faith," she says. "The strategic partners and the big society cannot ignore the BME community."

CV:

2007: Director, Voice4Change England

2004: Learning and development manager, Futurebuilders England (included a six-month secondment as policy adviser at the National Offender Management Service voluntary sector unit)

1996: UK policy and development manager, National Lotteries Charities Board (included a one-year secondment as policy adviser to the Home Office civil renewal unit)

1988: Deputy director, Voluntary Action Leicester

- More at thirdsector.co.uk. Click on policy & politics or good practice

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