News analysis: Will volunteering come to the ball?

Andy Ricketts reports on the continuing controversy over proposed reforms to the ChangeUp programme.

Capacitybuilders' Birmingham headquarters
Capacitybuilders' Birmingham headquarters

To say that the consultation on the future shape of the ChangeUp infrastructure programme was overshadowed by one issue would be like saying that this year's Wimbledon tennis tournament was a bit wet.

The row over whether volunteering should have its own national support service under proposals set out by Capacitybuilders, which runs the programme, meant that more than 80 per cent of the responses to the consultation focused on that concern.

In November, Capacitybuilders decided to scrap the six national hubs of expertise in April 2008 and put forward proposals to replace them with four national support services.

These services will be broken into four areas: finance, which includes fundraising and financial management; performance, covering vision, mergers, monitoring and ICT; a new theme called voice, which includes campaigning and advocacy; and workforce, which includes employment, governance and, controversially, volunteering.

Volunteering organisations were outraged that Capacitybuilders put forward a new structure for national support for charities without giving volunteering its own theme. Led by Volunteering England, which runs the current Volunteering Hub, they said the area would suffer without having a dedicated service.

Campaigners predicted last month that volunteer numbers would fall, and raised fears that they would begin to be treated as unpaid labour (Third Sector Online, 25 June).

Chris Pond, chair of Capacitybuilders, refuted the suggestion that volunteering was being downgraded and insisted the sector wanted a slimmed-down service. At the time, he said: "Our proposals on the provision of national support services have been shaped by the consultation on our strategic document, Destination 2014, and they reflect the sector's demand for more streamlined provision that more closely meets the needs at the front line."

Since then, the volunteering organisations' campaign has intensified, and its supporters were dismayed to discover that in the final days of the consultation, which closed last week, Capacitybuilders was still unpersuaded that volunteering should be given its own theme. "We are not convinced that volunteering should not be in with another strategic theme," Simon Hebditch, chief executive of Capacitybuilders, said 10 days ago.

But last week Capacitybuilders was criticised by its advisory body, the Infrastructure National Partnership, for being over-ambitious with its plans for the national support services and expressed concern over the loss of the volunteering theme. Uncertainty began to creep in.

At the launch of Destination 2014 last week, Pond and Hebditch were diplomatic about whether volunteering would be handed its own theme. However, they reiterated the need to streamline services during a time of declining government funding.

Capacitybuilders has heeded - in part - the advice of former civil servant Jo Durning, who wrote the report into the future of ChangeUp last year. She recommended scrapping the volunteering hub, as Capacitybuilders proposes, but funding Volunteering England to run a national volunteering programme under the ChangeUp banner. The latter proposal does not seem to be on the agenda now.

The Capacitybuilders board meets today to make a final decision on the issue before invitations to tender for providing the support services are put out before the end of the month.

Having taken over the running of ChangeUp from the Home Office only in April last year, Capacitybuilders is understandably keen to put its mark on the programme. That work continued with the launch of Destination 2014, which outlines the broad direction of the programme over the next seven years.

The document revealed some of the organisation's ambitions, including the takeover of other capacity-building funding streams (Third Sector Online, 3 July). But it was light on detail, according to some stakeholders, and side-stepped the issue of the structure of the national support services.

In the meantime, the future of ChangeUp is likely to be influenced by other factors. The Government's spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, has begun work on assessing the value of capacity-building projects in general. It will publish its report in the spring.

David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary who oversaw the birth of ChangeUp, has also been charged by Prime Minister Gordon Brown with drawing up a mini-manifesto on policy for the voluntary sector ahead of the next General Election. It remains to be seen whether his work will also touch on the programme.

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