Our members are the core of the movement for local social action. As local infrastructure bodies, they support the development and sustainability of local voluntary and community sector groups across England. Together, Navca’s members represent a critical component of civil society, and without them the VCS and communities would be much weaker.
A significant part of the chair’s role is to listen and learn, making my relationship different from that which the Navca staff team have with our members, but demanding it always complements those relationships. When I stood for election, I promised I would "connect" with the Navca members: be available, respond promptly and, above all, visit members whenever invited.
A stream of invitations (20 visits made to date and more booked over coming months) followed. I have spoken at members’ conferences and AGMs, met chief officers, chairs of trustees, staff and volunteers, as well as hearing from many members during our engagement programme for our new strategy. All these contacts have been educative and inspiring.
The Navca chair is elected directly by its members, so I am directly accountable to them. Such a relationship is perhaps more common among trade unions and political parties than the voluntary and community sector. This embeds the democratic link and accountability of the board and, specifically, the chair to the membership.
With this in mind, earlier this year, Navca started a process of engaging directly with its members on the development of a new strategy for the charity. The core of this strategy is to strengthen relationships and accountabilities, both within the organisation and across our movement.
This requires fostering horizontally focused mutualism between members and collaboration between Navca, fellow national sector organisations and others with whom we have a shared agenda. We are also committed to being more vocal and campaigning on those issues that are of deep concern to our members.
At the heart of this strategy is the recognition that we must promote the case for local VCS infrastructure, challenge and argue for alternatives to policies and practices such as competitive tendering for VCS support and public services, and champion diversity, social justice, equity and greater equality.
Like most national VCS bodies, Navca must be prepared to "speak truth to power", to be edgy and to challenge. Being hesitant or silent is a dereliction of our purpose.
Visiting and listening to Navca members across the country, I have been impressed by their resolve, commitment, resilience, energy and impact. I have also become even more aware of the diversity of size, activities and even cultures across Navca members.
However, I have been most struck by what we have in common, regardless of each member’s size and location. All those I have met play three core roles for their local VCS, offering support, development and voice. Some deliver services, sometimes under contract to local authorities or the NHS, sometimes through trading with the local VCS and others. However, all are responsive to their local VCS, and most are themselves membership bodies.
My Navca board colleagues and the staff team have been much encouraged by the strong support for Navca’s new strategy and our proposed reforms to strengthen governance and accountability. Further work is now under way to involve Navca members and other stakeholders in refining the strategy and plans for its implementation.
With that in mind, there are four key messages I have consistently taken away from my visits and conversations with Navca members.
First, against a backdrop of austerity, rising inequality and social and regional division, the need for strong, effective and bold local VCS-led social action has never been greater. This covers social action, practical action and resolute intervention, empowering and supporting communities and individuals, and campaigning for change.
Second, the need for a comprehensive, evidence-based analysis and narrative, making a compelling case for local VCS infrastructure that speaks resolutely to local government, the NHS, government and even business.
Third, the desire to strengthen the significance of movement and mutualism between Navca members, and the accountability of the board and staff to the membership.
Fourth, and critically, although there is a recognition that there are strong foundations on which to build for the future, there is also an overwhelming sense of urgency because "it is tough out there" for many Navca members and, even more significantly, for the communities in which and for whom they work.
Over the next six months, we look forward to hearing directly from and working with our members – for whom we exist to support, represent and speak up – report progress on agreed actions and, as requested, "get on with it".
John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and chair of Navca