At the beginning of the 90s, one of the leading academics studying the third sector complained that much of the debate about its role in public service delivery was characterised by "invidious organisational stereotypes". Fifteen years on and it often seems that little has changed.
The voluntary sector, we hear, is innovative, flexible, closer to communities and able to reach groups other sectors cannot. Over the years, I have known and worked with fantastic charities that exemplify these characteristics. But it is surely wide of the mark to say that the whole sector works this way.
Innovation is not, after all, doled out when you register with the Charity Commission. Similarly, passion and commitment to a cause are not the sole preserve of voluntary organisations.
These characteristics were present when I started my career as a social worker with the local authority. And there are fantastic probation officers, firemen and teachers who believe just as powerfully in what they do as any worker within our sector. To implicitly dismiss their contribution by suggesting that the third sector has the monopoly on passion is incredibly arrogant.
In fact, it is often talk of 'the voluntary sector' that gets us into trouble. What we are referring to is about 190,000 charities registered with the commission and, at best guess, some 350,000 voluntary and community groups. Trying to make general claims about such an incredibly diverse set of organisations is brave, to say the least, and research into service delivery often finds wider differences in service quality, pay rates and so on among voluntary organisations than between voluntary and public bodies.
I believe that good charities, rather than the whole charity sector, bring something special to the services they run. At Rainer, for example, we have as many volunteers as paid staff. Most of these volunteers act as mentors to our young people, working alongside professional staff. The relationships they form can be life-changing on both sides, and for many of our young people they are the only responsible adults in their lives who are not paid to be there.
Similarly, the history of social policy suggests that good charities can be at the forefront of innovation and respond to needs that the state may be missing; whether it is the beginnings of the probation service within Rainer in the 1870s or the development of needle exchanges in the early 80s, led by Turning Point's Hungerford Drugs Project.
What I reject, however, are the platitudes and hyperbole about the sector that this sometimes leads to. Good charities are a vital part of the welfare mix, but the voluntary sector is not the panacea for social problems it is often made out to be. With each of the main political parties committed to giving charities a central role in public services, we have an enormous opportunity. To be credible, however, we have to be able to back up the claims we make about our work.
There is already a backlash against the boldest claims: a recent report published the National Consumer Council questioned the idea that charities provide better, more responsive services. Much of the criticism of larger charities is fuelled by stereotypes and expectations of what the charity sector should be.
So where does that leave us? First, I think we need to talk more about the best organisation for the job, not the best sector. Rather than comparing ideals or essential characteristics, we need to talk more about concrete examples.
Charities large and small are carrying out fantastic work across the country. Some of them are streets ahead of local public services, working with groups that have simply been given up on by other agencies. But these successes, these achievements, have been won through the hard work, the ingenuity and the determination of those individual organisations, not by the charity sector.
Let's be honest, some charities are simply doing a bad job and achieving little more than wasting donations and public money. The work of donor adviser New Philanthropy Capital reflects a more evaluative attitude towards individual charity performance and a determination to dig beneath the claims that are often made about the sector. Rather than constituting a threat to voluntary organisations, this sort of questioning and evidence-based approach is essential if we are to maintain the enormous levels of trust that the public continues to place in us.
We should be proud of what we achieve, and more determined than ever to deliver the best for the groups we work with. In championing the role of the good charities, however, we have to become a little less charitable with the truth.