Editorial: Are values a luxury in a world of contracts?

Stephen Cook, editor

Do the following words strike a chord?

"It's incredibly hard to run this organisation. It's such a struggle to juggle so many balls, having to know everything about finance, HR, government policy and the way funding works, and to try to hold on to values when operational pressures are in your face." This could be a definition of life in a small to medium-sized voluntary organisation. It is in fact a quotation from the new report by Community Links called Living Values.

The report is an attempt to define the values of the voluntary sector, identify the threats to those values and suggest a way forward. Much of its text consists of quotations, such as the one above, from people who are running voluntary groups or trying to support them, and the resulting sense of immediacy and authenticity makes for an unusually compelling read. The report finds a set of eight values central to the work of the sector, ranging from empowering people to transforming lives and generating public wealth. None of them is any particular surprise, although some of the discussion shines new light on them.

No surprise, either, to hear that one of the greatest threats to those values is perceived to be the growing influence of government, through increased funding and prescriptive contracts. In this respect the report adds detail and texture to a familiar theme rather than breaking new ground.

It's probably at its most interesting in the section that claims the strongest threat comes not from outside the sector but from within - from the temptation to go after funding that does not fit with your values, allowing your values to be influenced by others and allowing day-to-day demands to warp your values. One interviewee said: "The funding issue is the one that makes it difficult to keep focusing on the values."

The reality indicated by such remarks is that, in many organisations, values are already a residual rather than a prime concern. The tide of history is carrying them inexorably into the arms of government, where those residual values will morph into pragmatism.

This process is not necessarily a bad thing - the public sector needs a process of renewal. And the real voluntary sector will thrive as long as we live in a free society, maintaining its independence and finding ways to secure the resources it needs - preferably from ordinary citizens - without compromising its values at all.

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