Simon Hebditch: Ralf Dahrendorf was a thought leader. Who plays that role for the voluntary sector now?

No contender has emerged to match the former Charities Aid Foundation trustee, says our columnist

Simon Hebditch
Simon Hebditch

I recently attended a seminar organised by the civil society team at the London School of Economics. The event was designed to reflect on the contribution made to the voluntary sector by the late Lord Dahrendorf, a former trustee of the Charities Aid Foundation and chair of the Council for Charitable Support in the late 1990s. Dahrendorf was also director of the LSE for some years, hence the prestigious academic venue.

Dahrendorf had an enduring passion for the independence of voluntary organisations and was always deeply suspicious of the motives of government - whatever its political colour. He believed strongly that voluntary groups should not be perceived to be part of the state apparatus in any way if they were to retain their special position in society.

Interestingly, the seminar discussions included much questioning about Dahrendorf's basic position. He often seemed to hold a rather old-fashioned view about what charities and voluntary groups did. Nevertheless, his passion for the sector, and his glorious writing style, always challenged you to question your own assumptions, and he undoubtedly offered philosophical leadership to the sector.

The occasion set me thinking - where is that kind of intellectual leadership coming from now? As the general election hoves into view, the voluntary sector needs both immediate political leadership - engaging the political parties in discussion about priorities - and a longer-term debate about how the voluntary sector relates to the state in the 21st century.

We are clearly getting the first form of leadership, with initiatives being taken by both the NCVO and Acevo, amongst others, to engage our political representatives in substantive discussions on the immediate future. But I am not convinced that the more fundamental issues concerning the role of the state and the voluntary sector's part in it are being pursued with equal energy.

There used to be an annual lecture series, the Goodman Lecture, that provided a platform for major national and international thinkers to explore the deeper issues we face as a society and how the charitable impulse might relate to them. I know other lecture series exist, but I don't yet see some similar initiative, with a significant national profile, where the sector can debate the way forward. Let's hope that the crisis in funding from the state that is fast approaching will focus our minds a bit more on redefining the sector's contribution to building a strong civil society in the years ahead.

- Simon Hebditch is an independent consultant and former chief executive of Capacitybuilders

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