NEWSMAKER: The VFI street fighter - David Fielding, Special advisor, Acevo

Mathew Little

Move over Jonny Wilkinson. The voluntary sector has a sporting icon of its own. David Fielding, the 36 year-old former director of drug rehabilitation charity Phoenix House and now special advisor to chief executives' body Acevo, was crowned Aikido martial art world champion in Leeds earlier this year. He also manages the British squad.

But with million-pound sponsorship deals and MBEs apparently not in the offing, Fielding also has to earn a crust. At present, as secretary to the Commission of Inquiry set up by Acevo into its Voluntary Finance Initiative, he is trudging the corridors of Whitehall attempting to convince politicians and senior civil servants of the need for a new deal for charities engaging with the state.

"The sector has organisations that are major service deliverers, but the way they have to pitch for work and the way they are funded is not an adult relationship," he says.

The premise behind VFI, a phrase first coined by National Consumer Council chief executive Ed Mayo in the Acevo book Replacing the State? last year, is that the voluntary sector's potential contribution to public services is critically hindered by the short-term nature of the grants and contract culture. Funded for two or three years at a time, charities do not have the security to develop and expand the services they provide. And when deals are struck with the state, the financial risk is borne almost entirely by the not-for-profit provider - witness the recent Leonard Cheshire debacle when the charity was forced to write off £1.5m of public donations following its botched partnership with the NHS.

The solution, suggests Acevo, is long-term contracts of 10 or 20 years, enshrining a fair balance of risk, and enabling voluntary organisations to plan ahead and, if necessary, lever in private finance. In return for this public investment, charities will have to agree outcomes with the state, such as keeping young people from re-offending or persuading adults to stop smoking.

Fielding, currently on secondment from the Community Fund, says his experience as a grant maker has convinced him that the system needs changing. "I see how much time and effort is spent on applying for grants - it is constant," he says. "I've had conversations with Bryan Dutton of Leonard Cheshire and John Low at RNID about the amount of time they spend chasing money.

From my experience at Phoenix House, I know how difficult it is living from hand to mouth. It seems a waste of time or could be far more efficient.

Everybody acknowledges that it could be better, but nobody has done much about it."

Since publication of Replacing the State?, the political momentum behind VFI has been steadily building up. Labour's ideas-man Alan Milburn has publicly endorsed it. And, after a meeting with Acevo, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull has made a presentation on the subject to senior civil servants in every government department.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury Paul Boateng has also backed it on the condition that it is given another name - likely to be 'Sure Funding' to avoid all unpleasant associations with the heavily criticised PFI schemes.

The aim now for Acevo is to get the idea in Labour's next election manifesto.

Fielding has been told by insiders he has about four or five months to make the case, so he will be embarking on some frenzied lobbying.

But the commission, whose 12 members include Turning Point chief executive Victor Adebowale and former minister Sally Keeble, is not solely about persuading the great and the good, but also about working out how VFI will work in practice. At the moment the details are sketchy. For example, the question of how exactly charities will be tied to delivering outcomes - and what happens if they fail - has yet to be answered. The issue of the length of fixed-term contracts, perhaps of 20 or 25 years, is another point of debate.

"I'm not convinced about that myself," says Fielding. "Victor Adebowale is. But you can't have long-term contracts without guarantees such as who shares the risk at the start, and performance indicators. I'm not saying we need an Ofsted or an Audit Commission in the voluntary sector, but there is going to be a need for better performance management." There are plans for model, off-the-peg VFI contracts that can be used by both large and small voluntary organisations.

Fielding is also aware he will have some philosophical arguments with sceptics within the sector, who fear VFI could mould charities into a pale imitation of the state. "The biggest ideological argument against VFI is that the voluntary sector is not a state provider, and has the ability to do things differently and experiment.

"It's an understandable objection. But Gordon Brown is saying that the voluntary sector is the deliverer of choice and gets things done. Our argument is yes we do, but lots of organisations are carrying out services on the cheap. It is a natural progression for the sector to provide more services, but I don't envisage it running everything in the future."

The aim is to have an interim report published by June, so until then Fielding will be fully engaged in negotiating with government ministers and representatives from the sector. It is a role his martial arts training may help with. "I'm not particularly aggressive," he says. "Aikido is about using your opponent's energy against them. I have used that quite effectively in employee relations, and in my dealings with politicians.

You don't come out with guns blazing - you respond, you deal, you adapt."

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