Finding a single voice for the sector is not easy, says report

Third Sector Research Centre academics Rob Macmillan and Heather Buckingham point to the complexity of trying to unify a vast sector that is a 'loose and baggy monster'

Rob Macmillan
Rob Macmillan

Leadership bodies will struggle to represent the whole of the voluntary sector in the face of government demands for a single voice to represent charities, a new discussion paper from the Third Sector Research Centre has warned.

A Strategic Lead for the Third Sector? Some May Lead, But Not All Will Ever Follow, by Rob Macmillan and Heather Buckingham, TSRC academics at the University of Birmingham, says that "local authorities or central government departments seem to want a single point of contact in the voluntary sector". It adds that the authorities would also like "a phone number to ring to find out what the sector thinks about a new policy or programme".

In reality, the paper says, the sector is not a single voice but a "loose and baggy monster" with a variety of opinions and needs.

The paper, the last in the TSRC’s Future Dialogues series, which are aimed at provoking discussion around sector issues, argues that government has led a drive to push the sector into having a single identity, involving "compacts, trade magazines, events, research programmes and strategic partner programmes".

"But if you get beneath the label and peer inside the box, you begin to appreciate both the sector’s diversity and its fuzzy hybrid edges," the report says. "Then you might also begin to worry about whether it is feasible to call it a distinctive sector at all."

The paper says that the decade leading up to 2008 was characterised by "a secure seat at the policy table" for the sector, which also drove an apparent "strategic unity" between charities.

But it says that this unity is a fragile thing driven by convenience, and that it might disappear in the face of increasing demand for scant funding.

It also says that some organisations feel that umbrella bodies for their sub-sector, such as those in "mental health, housing or criminal justice", are more able to speak for them than national bodies, and that many charities outside London feel they are not properly represented by organisations in the capital.

The paper says the phasing out of the strategic partners programme will also weaken the ability of umbrella bodies to speak for the whole sector.

Nonetheless, the paper says, there is a demand from charities for a single representative voice, particularly because some organisations feel it is difficult to speak out in their own interests and those of their beneficiaries.

"As concerns are increasingly expressed about the ability of organisations to speak out against government policy, leadership in the sector might need to play an increasing role in campaigning and protecting the voice and interests of both voluntary organisations and those they represent," the report says.

"Of course, we need to take differences between various organisations and parts of the sector very seriously – but despite the diversity, there may be room for leadership that enables the sector to assert and debate its values and value on a larger scale."

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