Over the past week or so, I have had the opportunity to speak and listen to a range of leaders from the voluntary and community sector. All have spoken passionately about their commitment to their organisations’ members and beneficiaries – and with equal passion (but considerable despair and anxiety) regarding the scale of the challenges they currently face.
I suppose this anxiety is hardly surprising, given that for many voluntary organisations demand for their services, advice and advocacy is rising at a rate most have never experienced before as a result of growing unemployment and poverty.
However, the particular issue that was mentioned, time and time again, is that for many of these colleagues, it is clear that the attitude and behaviour of public sector policymakers, commissioners and procurers are exacerbating the situation that they find themselves in and creating really serious problems. All too often, decisions are being taken without adequate discussion or dialogue with the sector, if any at all.
Public bodies, and in particular local authorities, are unilaterally adjusting contracts and/or refusing to fund the full costs of services procured from the sector. Consequently, some organisations in the sector are finding that they are being confronted with what are to them impossible demands that they accept contracts or revisions to existing contracts that place too much unmanageable risk on them.
In addition, many local authorities and NHS trusts have severely cut their grants budgets, while some have taken a policy decision to phase out grants completely and only to contract through competitive tendering. This is hitting many voluntary organisations, in particular those that have no interest or desire to provide contracted public services – actually, the majority of the sector is in this position.
This is a sector driven by values. Voluntary organisations want to serve their beneficiaries and be true to those values. They need support. However, the net effect of the contemporary situation seems to be disproportionate impact on development and infrastructure support, a reduction in the sector’s ability to provide a voice for marginalised communities and a stifling of innovation. Partly in consequence, I detect a growing sense of anger, helplessness and deep frustration amongst colleagues in the sector.
John Tizard works in the business, public and social sectors. He is a trustee at Navca, Tomorrow’s People, ACF and Action Space and is on the board of the Social Investment Business. He is also a former council leader
Read Tizard's second commentary: The solution, part one: banish self pity and focus on the opportunities
Read Tizard's third commentary: The sector's solution part two: 'build bridges with the council'