OPINION: Hot Issue - Does the image of the sector match its professional remit?

Among arch-Blairite Alan Milburn's plaudits for the voluntary sector at the NCVO's political conference last week was the caveat that the sector still projects an image of "cake stands and coffee mornings". Third Sector asked others for their views on what such an image problem might mean for charities.

Jonathan Isaac, director, UK Council on Deafness - NO

The voluntary sector has many remits and has to groom its image according to its audience. Most people's only contact with charities accurately reflects the 'coffee mornings and cake stands' image, and that contributes to the high levels of trust that the sector enjoys. We should be proud of this - neither the public nor private sector will ever be held in such high esteem.

Only a small minority of voluntary organisations need a professional image. But most require the assistance of volunteer effort to operate.

We should celebrate this unique aspect of a sector driven not by profit, but to serve a public benefit and generate social capital.

Where we do have an image problem is with those politicians who, content to pay high fees to private sector consultants, expect the voluntary sector to spend more and more time dispensing free advice to them.

Gerald Oppenheim, director of policy and communications, The Community Fund - YES

The Community Fund receives applications from small local charities wanting a few thousand pounds, through to large household-name charities wanting hundreds of thousands.

It would be wrong to say that a small charity is going to be any less professional than one whose name is instantly recognised. There is just as much pressure on both types of organisation to deliver outcomes for the money they receive. The expectation is that a large charity will have the internal skills and resources to do this, but it would be unfair to assume that a small charity did not have a similar range of experience available. Smaller organisations are just as capable of delivering projects as large ones, and every bit as professionally.

What counts is having a clear idea about what is to be achieved and how to get there. Funders look for the same levels of professionalism in the organisations that apply to them, whether or not they are charities and whatever the size of organisation.

Dan Corry, director, New Local Government Network - NO

To the casual observer, the image conjured up by the words 'voluntary sector' will either be of a self-obsessed, single-issue campaigner, or of rather flaky characters staffing local charity shops. This is pretty unfair, given that the sector is becoming increasingly sophisticated in all aspects of management, organisation and campaigning.

There are many problems to overcome. Professional standards are essential, even though the sector doesn't pay comparable wages. But through the activities of the NCVO, for example, the sector as a whole is raising professional standards and identifying the skills deficit.

While the 'scatty' image is often used to caricature the sector, we should be careful not to denigrate activists. The fact that the sector is thought of warmly by the public (if not by local councillors!) is partly because those staffing it are seen as truly dedicated individuals.

The aim here - which can be described as a classic Catch 22 situation - is to become more professional, without losing the very essence of why the sector adds value, in reality and in the minds of the public.

Rosie Chapman, director of policy, The Charity Commission - YES

Many charities play a key and increasing role in public service delivery.

Central to this role is a professional remit and approach, enabling these charities to deliver good-quality services. The work - and funding - to implement the Treasury cross cutting review fully recognises this role and offers significant opportunities for these charities.

One of the great strengths of charities is the added value they bring to their work by, for example, an ability to work across public sector boundaries, by meeting special interests, and by a track record of innovation and flexibility.

But equally, diversity is one of the sector's strengths. One of the delights of the charity sector is that by its very nature it grows and changes in an organic and unplanned way.

And while many of these charities may not seek a 'professional remit', their work, their diversity, their relationship with volunteers and users, and their independent role and voice is invaluable for a healthy and vibrant society.

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