John Tizard: We have many questions - let's start to think about answers over the summer

It's time to take a break but also to prepare to focus on what lies ahead for the sector

John Tizard
John Tizard

I know that many VCS colleagues – trustees, staff and volunteers – will have precious little opportunity to have much of a break this summer. Pressures continue to mount, be they from increasing demand for services, financial constraints and all too often reductions in income, and the worry of ever more uncertainty.

It is important for sector leaders to have some time off, to recharge and so much more, but the summer has traditionally provided a time for reflection and thinking about the remainder of the year and beyond.

Understandably, much thought will be focused on our organisations, their survival and development, funding, service contracts and strategy. This is inevitable and it is true that, without strong vibrant organisations, the VCS cannot meet its mission and benefit its beneficiaries and our communities.

However, I think that there are two other no less important sets of issues that we should actively be considering this summer.

We should be thinking about the role of charities and the VCS and how we can ensure that the sector maximises its independent voice, challenges those in power, offers alternative ideas and stays true to its mission, purpose and values. How can we continue to tolerate market-based competitive tendering when and if the public sector seeks to support and/or work with us? How can we shift the prevailing processes to being based instead on relational partnerships with grants replacing payment-by-results contracts? And, more importantly, how can we shift the culture and mindset of so many in political and executive leadership roles in the public sector, who see the VCS simply as a delivery agent for its services whether they fund them or not, and get them to understand that the sector is not a source of "free" volunteers?  

These are big questions and ones that will not be easily addressed. They will require collective and concerted voices and action across the sector. They will not all be resolved quickly, but let’s at least turn our minds to considering what might be done.

The second set of issues relates to contemporary social and economic conditions and their impact on communities. Our sector has always championed the rights and needs of marginalised communities, campaigned against injustice and inequality, and spoken up for human rights and social justice. It has also addressed issues such as environmental catastrophe with the same vim.

In that context, I suggest that the agenda should include how we respond to a range of issues, including: rising poverty (especially in-work poverty) and child poverty; insecure employment; a lack of decent affordable housing; increasing xenophobia; modern-day slavery; the uncertainties and downsides of a potential Brexit; a falling trust in business; and a constantly declining lack of trust in the political system itself. There are many communities that understandably feel that they have been left behind or ignored, yet they have as much right to benefit from the wealth of the sixth wealthiest economy in the world as everyone else.

We should consider what role the sector has locally and nationally in addressing these and related issues, both at the macro and the micro levels, at the policy and the practical levels, and through campaigning and positive practical action.

We must consider what role the sector should play if the state is being shrunk and public services closed. There are no simple answers, but any response has to be strategic and deliberate, not ad hoc and incoherent.

Social and much political change over the centuries has been achieved through social action. Many charities played critical roles in tackling slavery, ending child labour and so much more. So what are the modern equivalents and how should the sector respond and act in 2018 and the coming years? How can we turbo-charge social action?

I realise there are so many questions for those in the sector to consider that there is a real risk that either we do not focus or simply have no down time over the summer. We must focus, and we need a break too. Of course, we will all have pet issues that we will wish to consider, just as there are unlikely to be clear-cut answers to many of the questions. Both are OK.

After the holiday period, the national sector bodies can play a role in facilitating and leading a national debate or debates on these and, no doubt, other issues too.

John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and a former voluntary sector executive. He is now a trustee and chair

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