Editorial: Supping with the private sector

Charities need to face up to the dilemma illustrated by a recent exchange between Kevin Curley and Sir Stephen Bubb, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Sometimes the tensions in the voluntary sector are laid bare, as they were last week after the farewell speech at the Navca annual conference by Kevin Curley.

The chief executive of the local infrastructure body talked about a "strange and confused" relationship between the sector and private companies, and suggested that helping corporates make profits was at odds with charities' purposes of tackling disadvantage and discrimination. He returned to his earlier criticism of Turning Point and Catch 22 for participating with Serco in two prison contracts.

This drew a colourful riposte from Sir Stephen Bubb, leader of the chief executives body Acevo, who wrote in his blog that Curley was being unhelpful and accused him of "sub-prime Marxism". The idea that the sector should not engage with companies because they made and maximised profits, he said, was nonsensical: "We live in a capitalist system. We engage with it on behalf of our beneficiaries." And with that he declared he was off for lunch with the investment bank JP Morgan - "sorry, Kevin; I'm supping with the devil".

The exchange is an emblem of the difficulties and dilemmas many sector organisations are facing. With direct support from the state fading inexorably, a growing number of them are looking at a choice between working closely with the private sector to win funding to pursue their purposes and becoming more truly voluntary by relying instead on donors and philanthropists.

The outcome is likely to be a reshaping of the sector, with some organisations simply becoming big social businesses and others returning in various ways to their roots. In the process there will be much pain and heart-searching, as described by our Austerity Watch panel on pages seven to nine. The division between the 'statutory' voluntary sector and the 'voluntary' voluntary sector is likely to become wider, and the balance between them will change.

So what's happening in your charity? Are you out to lunch at JP Morgan with Sir Stephen Bubb, or sticking to your knitting with Kevin Curley?

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