Review of the Year 2010: A Voluntary Sector Odyssey

Labour was out and the big society was in. Power shifted and the spending axe fell. Mathew Little looks back on a year of changes for the voluntary sector

Angela Smith
Angela Smith

- The big society in just 267 unclear words

Until this May, All Souls College, Oxford, was thought to have the hardest entrance exam in the world. Applicants would open an envelope to be confronted with a single word - 'innocence' or 'miracles', for example - and have to write about it for three hours. But this year the voluntary sector faced an even harder question: just what exactly is the big society?

No one seems able to pin it down. According to a Third Sector survey, most sector folk don't understand it. Stephen Bubb of Acevo said it was as inscrutable as the Holy Trinity, and Stuart Etherington of the NCVO said it might be hot air. Nonetheless, a lot of people want to get involved, not least the 250 charity chief executives who wrote to David Cameron in May offering their help.

But not everyone was quite so enthused. In October a big society town hall tour was scrapped because of heckling about spending cuts. There were some clues as to what this big society thing is, however. A big society deregulation taskforce was launched in August and the Big Society Bank will start handing out £60m in unclaimed assets next summer. Pilots for the National Citizens Service for young people will also begin next year.

But the big society's architects aren't exactly spreading enlightenment. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude described it as "chaotic and disorderly", while the government's Big Society adviser, Nat Wei, said that part of it would always remain mysterious. A bit like life itself, mused a Third Sector editorial, the whole thing was perhaps a state of mind.

- The moment of truth

The expressions say it all: a wounded look from Angela Smith, something like a smirk from the Tory Stephen Metcalfe and gloom on the face of the Lib Dem candidate who doesn't yet know his party's going to be in government. This was the general election count at South Basildon and Thurrock just after Labour's voluntary sector minister lost her seat to the Tories. Within days, the smooth old Etonian Nick Hurd had taken over the Whitehall office occupied for 11 months by the self-styled "typical Essex girl".

- Cuts

But if the big society had an air of intangibility, government cuts were unavoidably real. The Charity Commission was badly hit, with budget cuts so deep that it will probably be known in future as just the 'Commission' to save money on ink. By June lawyers were suggesting the regulator might not be able to do its job properly because of redundancies. And with a further 140 job losses on the way, its new chief executive, Sam Younger, is preparing for austerity - probably from a one-room, prefabricated house just outside Ipswich.

But at least the Charity Commission survived the 'bonfire of the quangos', unlike Capacitybuilders and the Commission for the Compact. Meanwhile, Navca was anticipating life without half its staff and the government said it would reduce the number of strategic partnerships with the sector by two-thirds. My umbrella has holes.

Large charities were on a cliff edge, said the Charity Commission's chair, Suzi Leather, in March. And in July, a survey revealed that 87 per cent of big charities had made job cuts. Some were preparing for the inevitable plunge. Guide Dogs appointed a consultant to cut spending: the new chief executive, Richard Leaman, said he was "financially rigorous" after 35 years in the navy.

There was still time for irony. In July, research revealed that charities had resorted to mergers in order to survive. That's after years of being told to do so, largely fruitlessly, by everyone in authority during the good times.

- Silver linings ...?

There were one or two - if you looked closely.

In April, the NCVO's research team said the sector's workforce had grown, despite the downturn. That same month, we also learned that the value of charity investments rose by a third in 12 months. In June, we discovered that the fundraising income of the top 500 charities was more robust than expected. And the government announced a hardship fund for the sector that contained much more money than the last government's hardship fund. Or was it old money? This is a new government - isn't it?

- Fight! The charity punch-ups of 2010

Mick Aldridge vs Newsnight

Mick Aldridge, chief executive of the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, battled in vain against Newsnight's assault on the payment of chuggers. He was skewered by Liz MacKean and then finished off by a hatchet-wielding editor.

Big Society Roadshow vs the Hecklers

They went to preach the gospel of the big society, only to encounter hostile hecklers. "Yikes!" went the roadshow team, before scuttling back to the safety of Whitehall.

Lord Phillips vs Lib Dem defence

The post-general election addition of security heavies at the Lib Dem party conference didn't deter Lib Dem peer and charity lawyer Lord Phillips, who turned up without a pass. He made a dash for it but was brought down by three gorillas.

Models Fight Night

Sixteen "gorgeous" women beat each other up for charity, boasted this fundraiser for a Suffolk County Council children's home. Who won? Not sure - people weren't focusing on the score.

Age UK vs Age Concern

Long live Age UK - the charity formed by the merger of Age Concern UK and Help the Aged in April. However, an Age Concern guerrilla army continue to challenge the rebrand plans. Peace talks are ongoing.

- Quote of the year

"Quangos are like Canadian seal pups: if you see one, club it" - Sir Bert Massie.

The former Commissioner for the Compact, accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Third Sector Excellence Awards in September - just weeks before his quango was officially clubbed. Expect to see it on a catwalk soon

- Most read on thirdsector.co.uk in 2010

1 August: Twelve public sector projects to be run as mutuals

The first public sector coops will work with voluntary organisations in areas such as homelessness and rehabilitation, in a plan backed by Cabinet Office money.

2 May: Coalition outlines plans for big society programme

David Cameron and Nick Clegg promise to take power away from politicians and encourage donations to charity.

3 June: Charity recruited chief executive it knew was a sex offender

Charity Commission suspends the head of unnamed disability charity, who was appointed by trustees with full knowledge of his past.

4 February: National Bullying Helpline condemned for breach of confidentiality over No 10 complaints

Regulator says it will speak to the charity after it revealed that Downing Street staff phoned for help.

5 March: Charities start to get tough on London Marathon runners who fail to deliver sponsorship money

Runners who default on fundraising targets to be asked to pay up by sponsoring charities.

- You read it here

McDonald's was revealed in March as the trainer of volunteers for the 2012 Olympics. Volunteering charities said they were happy to work with the fast-food giant, especially on the frozen smiles.

A "disgusted" fundraiser said she was leaving her job because of phone calls from the public upset about direct mail. Elsewhere - in a perfect item for Alan Partridge's radio show - details of EveryChild donors were found in a Norwich street. There is no confirmation that the person who spotted the list cried "aha!" when it caught their eye.

The Charity Commission, which has offered voluntary redundancy to its whole staff, received the good news that it might have to rewrite its entire public benefit guidance. "Can you do this? Hello, is there anyone there?"

- Strange but true

Some things we learnt in 2010. And some things we never imagined we'd see. Like Polly Tommey, head of the Autism Trust, stripping for the charity's "Hello Boys" billboard to catch the eye of Gordon Brown. The former body double for actor Charlotte Rampling was phoned days later by the then Prime Minister, who offered her a meeting with health minister Phil Hope. "It would have been a waste of time going any lower," she told Third Sector. I don't know - she might have met the Secretary of State.

It got personal at Leonard Cheshire. Staff were told about job cuts via speakerphone, listening to a recorded message made by its short-lived chief executive, Eric Prescott. And in May it was revealed the Charity Commission offered £100 in compensation to African Aids Action for its customer service failings. That was May. If it was now, it would have got £17.50.

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