Opinion: Hot issue - Was 2005 a good year for the voluntary sector?

The Asian tsunami, the Niger famine and the London bombing brought unprecedented levels of giving in 2005, but the sector faced delays to the Charities Bill and difficult challenges in its relationship with government.

YES - GERALDINE PEACOCK, CHAIR, CHARITY COMMISSION

The tsunami disaster that ended 2004 produced an unprecedented response that put individuals' responsibility to help back at the heart of society. This held throughout the year, through Live 8, Make Poverty History and the Niger famine and London bombing appeals.

Society started caring again, and this can only be good news for the sector.

The Charities Bill (which appears to be vying for a record as the piece of legislation that takes the longest time to get through Parliament) was reintroduced this year. It would provide a range of practical, modernising changes, giving charities the flexibility they need to operate in the 21st century.

The Year of the Volunteer gave new energy to volunteering. Our initiative with TimeBank, the Get on Board campaign, highlighted the need for strong, diverse trustee boards and stimulated high levels of public interest.

Organisations such as Capacity Builders, Futurebuilders and Charity Bank came into their own, offering a range of sustainable funding initiatives.

The challenge in 2006 is to do even better, with charities realising their potential, growing in confidence, setting agendas, influencing policy, debunking myths and promoting the sector's unique qualities - in short, believing in themselves.

NO - NANCY PLATTS, DIRECTOR, MATERNITY ALLIANCE

The Maternity Alliance is being wound up on 19 December, so 2005 has definitely not been a good year for us - and I'm sure our problems are typical of many smaller charities that deliver services on behalf of government.

Changes that the Government has made to the way it funds charities have created lots of problems. Effectively, a market has been created and charities are competing against each other to deliver public services. It's very hard to get core funding - you can only get project costs and, because the Government always wants to fund projects that are new and innovative, existing services cannot compete, even though they have been successfully helping people for many years.

Charities such as ours were established to provide services to the most marginalised people in society - people who, for whatever reason, find it very difficult to access state services. We have been doing this for 25 years, yet now the Department of Health tells us we are not essential.

These policies have been in place for a while now, but this year the competition they are creating has really begun to bite. Make no mistake, charities are being seen by the Government as a cheap alternative for delivering public services.

YES - ROS HARWOOD, HEAD OF THE CHARITIES GROUP AT DICKINSON DEES SOLICITORS

It was generally a good year for charities, with some exceptions. It will probably be hailed as not only the Year of the Volunteer, but also the Year for Charity, because it was widely thought that there would be a new Charities Act. As we all know, this has been delayed until next summer or thereabouts.

My own view is that the delay has allowed time for more constructive consultation and discussion about some provisions that might otherwise have been rushed through. This can only benefit the sector.

There was a near disaster for charities able to benefit from Gift Aid on admissions, to the extent that HMRC was going to abolish these rules. We have ended up with a bit of giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

From November there have been simplified procedures for securing Gift Aid for telephone donations, which is a positive.

All in all, a mixed year. But 2006 should be interesting, with the enactment of the Bill and various tranches of secondary legislation dealing with details of the Bill such as the charity incorporated organisation. It will be interesting to do this exercise at the same time next year.

YES - CAROLE EASTON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, CHILDLINE

The response to the Boxing Day tsunami provided a very public demonstration of the importance of the work done by the sector. Recent results from a YouGov survey for the charity Crisis suggest that many Britons are more likely to become volunteers or increase their charitable giving as a result.

So, despite the short-term impact on fundraising at many small and medium-sized domestic charities, the massive voluntary sector response to the tsunami may well have longer-term benefits.

Moves by the sector to increase its transparency and accountability are also very welcome. The government-funded Self-Regulation of Fundraising scheme, led by the Institute of Fundraising, should help share best practice and ensure poor practices are rejected by the sector itself. Complementing this is the work of the ImpACT Coalition, led by the NCVO, to help explain the mysteries of the sector to the public.

Finally, we hope that, by joining the NSPCC, ChildLine will help others reflect on the best way to meet their own objectives. The answers will not always be as radical as ours, but we are sure others will be equally prepared to do whatever is necessary to provide a better service and a stronger voice for those they exist to serve.

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