Opinion: It's time for the 'misunderstood' sector to grow up

Third Sector's recent survey of the voluntary sector, carried out with think tank npfSynergy, should give us all pause for thought.

I was struck by the fact that virtually the only thing most organisations were united on was the belief that the public "doesn't understand modern charities" (92 per cent strongly agreed or agreed with this statement). I'm not really surprised. The public doesn't understand the sector, at least in part because it sounds like a teenager - "my parents don't understand me" - and because the sector itself is unsure about what it is.

Part of the confusion lies in deciding whether the sector is a public service provider for government or a campaigner. But part of the cause of uncertainty lies elsewhere.

Two respondents' concerns and priorities listed in the article about the survey go some way to explaining the sector's doubts about itself. One said: "The impulse to grow is not matched by priorities on the ground, staffing or fundraising." Another said: "They keep telling us how positive things are for the sector, but people are more depressed than I have known in 20 years." The sector - or rather its variety of disparate organisations - is uncertain of direction, worried about the future, feels misunderstood and is a bit depressed. Just like a teenager, perhaps.

And there is something else. Sixty-six per cent asserted that the sector is "passionate", but that description does not fit with other findings.

Naturally, people have a passion for their causes or they would not work where they do. But whether organisations' leaders are truly passionate or more cautious and measured is another question entirely. I was thinking about this at a recent service to commemorate British people, not Jewish themselves, who risked their lives or careers to help Jews, just before or during the Second World War. The most famous is Frank Foley, an MI6 officer in Berlin working undercover as a passport officer. It is estimated he helped more than 10,000 Jews safely to asylum in Britain and Palestine by forging visas. He was risking his career. Asked about it much later in life, however, he said he just did what he could. He had real passion.

A whole variety of third sector organisations were founded by people with similar passion. We still see it, occasionally - Still Human Still Here, the asylum charities' coalition set up to change government's increasingly inhumane measures against failed asylum seekers, is one example. Those few leaders prepared to act at risk to themselves and leading others to help are the original backbone of the voluntary sector. It is about selflessness, courage, speaking out and being clear about what is right and wrong.

The sector appears to believe itself to be a bit of a wimp. Perhaps the challenge now is to look to Frank Foley for inspiration and be brave when facing a government that might want some control over the sector's independence. Would that make the sector grow up?

Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering.

And while we're on the subject...

- The State of the Voluntary Sector 2007 survey, carried out by Third Sector with think tank nfp Synergy, surveyed about 300 people working in the voluntary sector across the UK. It found that charities see themselves as passionate (66 per cent), caring (65 per cent), independent (51 per cent) and inspiring (50 per cent).

- When asked about the most pressing issues facing the sector, 34 per cent of respondents strongly agreed and 58 per cent agreed with the statement that the public did not understand modern charities. The majority also agreed that what it means to be a charity was becoming increasingly blurred (71 per cent).

- More than half believed the Government exerted too much control over the sector, and 13 per cent strongly agreed with this statement. Many also believed the sector could be more assertive - nearly 60 per cent agreed that charities were too cautious about campaigning, and a similar proportion said the sector was too conservative and cautious.

- Nick Seddon, author of Who Cares?, a book on state funding of charities, believes the sector's confusion about its identity is deepening: "There are so many different organisations doing so many different things, but no distinction between any of them in formal terms," he says. "This leaves many unsure about how to situate themselves."

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