Editorial: Forward or back, it looks the same

2012 promises more of the same for the voluntary sector, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

For the third year running, we find ourselves in December looking back over a difficult year for the sector and looking forward to more of the same. The fat years are becoming a distant memory and the lean years are concentrating minds and bringing change.

Most of the change is prompted by shrinking resources, especially from the state. The prospect of compensating for this through increased giving seems dim, although falls in fundraised income are so far less pronounced than might have been expected. The sector is getting smaller - and yet some charities will thrive and even grow.

The Charity Commission is becoming a different animal, as its new public-focused strategic plan makes clear. "Charities you can support with confidence" is its new vision, replacing "Championing the work of the sector". Early results from our State of the Sector survey, to be published in January, reveal concern that cuts to its budget will undermine its regulatory effectiveness.

The survey also indicates that governance remains a worry for many charities. Getting the right balance between the role of the board and role of the staff is always the key. Is the pendulum swinging too far towards skills-based boards, and away from the board's role as a guardian of values?

On the political front, Labour has come through an unfocused post-election period and begun to mount a sharper challenge to Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society. But it still needs a renewed vision for the sector that doesn't rely on the old - and now unrealistic - formula of pumping in more money.

Looking at the whole picture, the upside is an opportunity for parts of the sector to become more truly voluntary, with the benefits of social cohesiveness that this can bring. Other parts will just get closer to the state. The biggest danger is that, while charities dealing with cancer, children and dogs or donkeys will be all right, those that deal with mental illness, refugees, marginalised groups and disadvantaged youth will not.

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