Sponsored Feature: Governance - Independence: Is the sector losing it?

When does independence become isolation, and can compromise become an abdication of responsibility? The Bircham Dyson Bell forum gathered for the debate.

On one side of the table is Jeremy Swain, chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach and a sceptic on the subject of independence. His view is that charities shouldn't get too hung up about it and should listen to funders, users and others. This isn't always popular, and he relates how someone told him in pungent terms after a few drinks recently that he was a bit too close to government.

On the other side is Andy Benson, convenor of the National Coalition for Independent Action. He takes an uncompromising approach and believes that it may already be too late to defend the independence of the voluntary sector from "co-option by the state and takeover by the private sector". He's a purist and an activist of a kind not often found nowadays.

The two men worked together in the early days of Thames Reach in the 1990s and are friends despite their differences. There are hugs and slaps on the back when they meet at the lunch before the debate: 15 minutes later, the verbal fisticuffs begin.

Benson opens with a left against large charities for acting like the private sector and a right against government for depriving small organisations of money and using capacity-building as a means of controlling them. The hubris of the big boys takes his breath away, he says, while smaller charities are "like rabbits in the headlights" of government policy.

Swain reminds Benson of the early days of Thames Reach, working with government and others, making compromises to build it up into the organisation it is now, with a turnover of £20m. He delivers a left jab about independence being a top subject for the chattering classes, but not a big issue for most people: "They just want capable charities running good services."

As the debate continues, the views of the two men form the ends of a spectrum. Benson, for example, criticises public bodies for forcing voluntary organisations to be bigger by refusing to deal with smaller ones, but Swain responds that size can itself nurture independence. "Size has brought us the ability to walk away from problems," he says.

The views of the other participants in the debate fall somewhere along the spectrum, probably with a bias towards Swain. "Independence could mean isolation," says Kier-an Kettleton, the head of fundraising at Emmaus UK. "Do you say 'we're not going to cooperate with anyone - we know what's best'? You can't be other than interdependent."

Helen Baker, deputy commissioner at the Commission for the Compact, agrees with Swain and says the Compact promotes and protects the independence of charities in its dealing with all sorts of public bodies. Benson retorts that the Compact "perpetuates the falsehood that we're a big happy family, together in the same club".

Rick Henderson, chief executive of Action for Advocacy, throws in a cautionary tale about exercising independence: a group he was involved with once went to the press with details of maltreatment of older people in the council's care. "We were 100 per cent council-funded, and the social services director said we'd never work in the town again," he says. "He clicked his fingers and we were gone. It was a very stark lesson."

Caroline Gaunt, deputy chief executive of Urban Forum, laments the virtual disappearance of grant funding and reveals that 55 organisations have written to Hazels Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to protest about the department's proposal that only those charities that have incomes above £400,000 should be allowed to apply for its new Empowerment Fund.

Matthew Smerdon, deputy director of the Baring Foundation, says grants should not always be put on a pedestal as an example of good funding - their terms could be as restrictive as contracts. The determinants of independence in an organisation, he says, are legitimacy, including governance and user involvement, and confidence, including good use of the media and campaigning skills.

Suzanne Murray, business manager of Islington Play Association, says a good approach is for organisations to form partnerships to negotiate with local authorities. "It's a question of sitting down with them, defining what the problems are and making compromises on both sides."

Jonathan Brinsden, a solicitor with Bircham Dyson Bell, makes a point about charity law: if a charity loses its independence by becoming the agent of a funder, the funder becomes in effect a trustee - yet the actual trustees are liable if things go wrong.

The chair, Debra Allcock Tyler, closes the debate with the enigmatic fable of the scorpion that persuades the fox to give it a ride over the river because it's in both their interests to reach the other side. "Halfway across the scorpion stings the fox and, as they're both drowning, the fox says: 'Why did you do that?' The scorpion replies: 'I'm sorry, I can't help it - it's in my nature.'"

THOSE TAKING PART

CHAIR: Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory of Social Change

The leader of the training and publishing organisation has a reputation as a fierce defender of the independence of charities.

- Helen Baker, deputy commissioner, Commission for the Compact

An arm's-length body set up by the Cabinet Office to oversee the Compact.

- Andy Benson, convenor, National Coalition for Independent Action

This loose network acts on "the belief that what we value about voluntary and community action is under severe attack".

- Jonathan Brinsden, solicitor, Bircham Dyson Bell

A charity lawyer who has advised charities that operate internationally and a number of US charities operating in the UK.

- Nicola Evans, senior associate, Bircham Dyson Bell

Evans is responsible for knowledge management on charity matters.

- Caroline Gaunt, deputy chief executive, Urban Forum

The forum is an umbrella body for community and voluntary groups with interests in urban and regional policy.

- Rick Henderson, chief executive, Action for Advocacy

A national umbrella organisation for about 1,000 local groups that provide lay advocacy.

- Joanna Holmes, chief executive, Barton Hill Settlement

This body offers a range of services to about 10,000 people in east Bristol. Holmes is also chair of the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres.

- Kieran Kettleton, head of fundraising, Emmaus UK

An umbrella group for 17 organisations that provide work and homes for homeless people.

- Suzanne Murray, business manager, Islington Play Association

This is an umbrella group for play providers in the London Borough of Islington.

- D'Arcy Myers, chief executive, Wessex Heartbeat

The charity aims to help local people affected by cardiac disease.

- Matthew Smerdon, deputy director, Baring Foundation

The foundation has a variety of grant-making programmes designed to strengthen the voluntary sector.

- Jeremy Swain, chief executive, Thames Reach

Helps homeless and vulnerable people to live in decent homes and lead fulfilling lives.

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