A high-level commission similar to the Deakin inquiry of 1996 might be needed to set out an agenda for the voluntary sector for the next 15 to 20 years, according to Joe Saxton, head of the sector consultancy nfpSynergy.
He was commenting on the State of the Sector survey, conducted jointly by the consultancy and Third Sector, which shows that nearly 60 per cent of respondents are dismissive of the government’s programme for the sector.
"Perhaps the bigger issue is that, after 18 months, excitement about a new government and the ideas it had has not been sustained," said Saxton. "Maybe it’s time for a new strategy for the sector.
"This would be a document that sets out the agenda on funding, philanthropy, impact, sector bodies, post-Compact life, governance and so on. Is it time for the sector to regain control of its own direction?"
The survey, published today, also shows that voluntary income is holding up better than statutory income, that charities seem to be doing more with less, that there are concerns about independence and the future of regulation.
The suggestion by Saxton, a former chair of the Institute of Fundraising, brought a mixed response from sector leaders. Ben Kernighan, deputy chief of executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which ran the Deakin inquiry on the future of the voluntary sector, which reported in 1996, said he was not against revisiting it.
"Many of the ideas and themes remain relevant," he said. "But our focus should overwhelmingly be on making those structures, and the initiatives that have followed – such as the recent Funding Commission – work for the sector."
Kevin Curley, chief executive of the local infrastructure body Navca, said it would be a good idea to have "an NCVO-led commission working for a year to shape a future for the sector now that all the old certainties about a funded relationship with the state are disappearing.
"It would need to attract some senior people and have an agenda including independence, commissioning, social investment and private-voluntary sector relationships. Deakin didn’t look at that – it was more about the public sector."
Peter Kyle, deputy chief executive of the chief executives body Acevo, said he wouldn’t discourage such an inquiry. "But we tend to lean towards focused pieces of work," he said. "Grand reports worked when there was strong government at the centre, but now there’s a more complex political landscape."