Roger Singleton, the newly appointed chair of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, believes that the voluntary sector is facing its toughest time in more than 30 years.
He feels that the struggle simply to remain afloat financially has the potential to overshadow the importance of independence for many organisations, and points to the growing number of mergers among organisations that can no longer operate alone.
Singleton's career in the voluntary sector includes 21 years as chief executive of Barnardo's. He has also been chair of the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations and is the current chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority.
"What I'm looking to bring to the role is my experience," he says. "Some of it has been seeking the balance that has to be struck between providing services that play to statutory agendas - what the government and local government wants to do and achieve - without doing violence to the basic principles on which many voluntary organisations were founded."
Making independence a priority
The panel, a high-powered group of charity leaders, academics and other experts, was established in 2011 with a remit to ensure that independence remains a priority among voluntary organisations. It will produce five reports over five years and is funded by the Baring Foundation.
"It is important for the health of the not-for-profit sector that people see that it has an independent voice, and that people can support the sector without thinking that it is all a bit of an adjunct to the welfare state," says Singleton.
Singleton says the panel's success will depend on communicating the importance of the sector's independence in the media, but adds that its outcomes will also depend on the quality of information fed in from the field.
Launched in January, the independence panel's first report, Protecting Independence in the Voluntary Sector in 2012, drew on feedback from a variety of organisations and individuals in the sector, and highlighted what it considered the six most significant challenges facing voluntary groups.
Statutory funding models
These include the present statutory funding models open to the sector, self-censorship among voluntary organisations, an inability to shape key decisions and a blurring of the boundaries between the different sectors.
Asked if he agreed that organisations receiving funding from the government should be seen as charities, Singleton says it would depend on whether funding had compromised independence rather than what percentage of income it represented.
"The big danger is not the proportion - it is that if you get to a point where you allow your voluntary organisation or charity to be driven significantly by what you can get money for, then I think there may very well be a question about why you are sheltering under charitable status."
He says it is vital that voluntary organisations engaged in contracts with the government should be willing to voice inconvenient truths, but adds that, given the current economic climate, organisations receiving most of their income from a single commissioner might find that more difficult.
'Shortcomings in service'
One way forward, he suggests, would be for the voluntary sector to be more assertive and commissioners to be more willing to include clauses in contracts that would permit a voluntary organisation to be "publicly critical about shortcomings in service".
On the Work Programme, Singleton says that the jury is still out as to whether the scheme has helped or hindered the voluntary sector. He says the negative effects inevitably gain more press than the positive ones.
"It does need looking at carefully because the general history of the voluntary sector participating in government work programmes has not been crowned in glory," he says. "I think the Work Programme in particular, a little bit further down the track, is a ripe candidate for careful analysis of what the positives and negatives of voluntary sector participation are."
Despite the difficulties facing the sector, Singleton says he is not a prophet of doom and does not believe that the principles and foundations of the voluntary sector are at risk. But he says that he and his colleagues will try to navigate the "peculiar and particular climate" currently faced by the sector in achieving their goals.
"This panel is not about hand wringing," he says. "It is about how we can ensure that issues of voice, purpose and action continue to be absolutely central to the third sector."
2012: Chair, Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector
2007: Chair, Independent Safeguarding Authority
1990: Chair, National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations
1984: Chief executive, Barnardo's