The charity sector should reject the "crude dualism" that large organisations with paid staff and volunteer-led, community-based groups are two completely different things, according to Steve Wyler, former chief executive of Locality, has said.
Wyler, who left his post at the member organisation for community groups earlier this year, was giving evidence in London yesterday to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector.
The panel, a project funded by the Baring Foundation, is dut to publish its fourth and final annual report in January next year.
Wyler told the panel that enabling local action made society work better, referring to work he had done on the report A Call to Action for the Common Good, supported by the charitable foundation the Carnegie UK Trust.
"The practice of common good requires that power and ownership and risk and reward are distributed more broadly," he told the panel. "This is not just an ethical question; it's a question of effectiveness as well."
But Wyler said it would be wrong to suggest that only grass-roots organisations could deliver this. "I'm slightly reluctant to make a distinction and say large and paid is bad, local and unpaid is good," he said. Many people stereotype small voluntary groups as amateurish and say larger charities are brand-obsessed and bureaucratic, Wyler told the panel, asking: "Are we setting up too crude a dualism?"
But Wyler acknowledged that he had "some concerns with some of the ways the large charities have operated", in particular because of their lack of genuine allegiance to local communities.
There was discussion throughout the session about the different characteristics of organisations of different sizes, with some arguing that the values of an organisation were more important than its size or legal structure.
Sir John Elvidge, a trustee of Carnegie UK and formerly Scotland's most senior civil servant, also gave evidence to the panel. Talking about locally-led organisation and action, he said the work he had done for another report from the foundation "has led us to the conclusion that there is an enormous amount of activity of this type that is under-recognised, and that this is an ignored force". He said: "One of the essential features of all this self-directed, self-managed activity is that it is independent."
Elvidge said that when local action was recognised, attempts to strengthen or replicate it often went awry. "It requires incredible skill to be the agent of increasing capacity, but it seems self-evident that the voluntary sector is the most probable source of that," he said.
Elvidge said it was sometimes preferable to deliver projects at scale, through larger organisations. When this happened, he said, the non-local organisation must be able to keep the best interest of the community at heart. "You must have an ability to see withdrawal as a sign of success; to recognise that the less you do, the more success you have had," he said. "You should not seek to build the scale or the influence of the organisation one represents but to seek genuinely to improve the lives of individuals."
Louise Whitfield, a member of the panel and a specialist in judicial review at the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, where she is a partner, said one difference between bigger and smaller groups was that local organisations were sometimes likely to flex their independence muscles.
"Local community organisations are much more likely to want to stand up to government," she said. "I've had only one case in which larger charities have wanted to bring a challenge."
She said these cases often had the added bonus of making local councils reconsider some aspects of their work and their relationships with the voluntary sector, regardless of the outcome of the legal process. "One thing that struck me about all the cases I've done is that there was often an unexpected positive outcome," she said.