The sector is a big tent

Voluntary action is as important as professionalism, says Craig Dearden-Phillips

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

After my last column, about my need for a quieter life, I went and got myself elected earlier this month to Suffolk County Council. Then I got an MBE.

Both gave me a lot of pleasure, but especially the election. One of my fellow columnists was recently asking whether or not third sector leaders should enter politics and came down decidedly on the 'no' side.

I would argue otherwise. Politics and voluntary action are, in this country at least, and particularly at local level, two sides of the same coin. The same kinds of motives, by and large, give rise to both activities.

This was my first time as a candidate. Organising my campaign reminded me of the early days of setting up Speaking Up: not a lot of money and total reliance on volunteers.

Melding a coherent team from a group of all talents, ages and backgrounds - honing a message and keeping spirits high. I also loved the rawness of it all, the clear sense of purpose (beat the other guy) and the link between action and result.

But perhaps most of all, I enjoyed the voluntary coming together of people: the knowledge that we were all acting together on the basis of shared beliefs.

This is also the basis of many third sector organisations, especially the smaller ones. You get it in larger ones too, particularly at board level, but in senior teams, and even paid staff, the dynamic is different. Passion for the cause becomes one part of a cocktail of motivations. This isn't bad, because we need paid people as much as we need volunteers; it's just different.

Overall, my days on the stump reminded me of a fundamental truth I had half-forgotten as my own existence became better-paid and corporate (again, not a bad thing - it's just the way things are). And this is that we need to judge our third sector as much on its ability to generate voluntarism as its capacity to become more professionalised. Voluntarism is a key generator of 'social capital', the glue that makes our society a desirable place to live.

As much as we need to forge an expanded role for the third sector in areas once the exclusive province of the state (education, health, rehabilitation of offenders), we must also pay attention to ensuring the sector is clearly associated with voluntary action.

These two goals are often seen as conflicting. I don't think they are. Like any other, our sector is a very big tent. Its diversity is more of a strength than we realise. Looked at from a distance, the third sector is a fantastic force, in all its forms.

Craig Dearden-Phillips writes in a personal capacity, and is founder and chief executive of Speaking Up.

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