OPINION: What we need is a clear focus and leadership

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner

I don't know about you, but hazy recollections of 'O' level Shakespeare quotations come to mind these days, particularly that Julius Caesar one: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune".

The other part of that quotation, not so often remembered, says "all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries". This is especially pertinent and there is a danger of the sector going this second way.

The sector is turbulent at present. Activities include the Strategy Unit's report on charity law, the cross-cutting review, social investment initiatives, Futurebuilders and Charity Bank. There's yet another new Charity Minister, the Charity Commission is modernising its regulatory role and the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Home Secretary are all committed to the third sector. Why, then, do I have a slightly uneasy feeling?

Because, despite this hive of activity, some things are missing: a clear focus, a unified sector identity and strong leadership. What is the voluntary sector, where are the boundaries, what differentiates it from other sectors, and who or what is actually going to make things happen?

Before you howl with disbelief, just think a minute. We are in changing times and the people of this country are interested in what happens and how it affects them. They want good services, which meet their needs, at a price they can afford, regardless of who provides them.

As a sector we have grown enormously in the past 10 years, but we still punch below our weight because we have not decided where we fit. We must find our own answers, recognise the tremendous resources we have and the unique position we occupy across traditional boundaries, and use those to come together so that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

This means clarifying roles, deciding whether the term "voluntary" is still useful and, most importantly of all, working together. We need to acknowledge that our infrastructure needs looking at and agree a coherent structure, which embraces the challenges of quality, diversity and independence.

Above all, we must recognise that this is about a new form of civil engagement.

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