OPINION: A competitive streak doesn't suit this sector

When I hear the phrase "cut-throat competition", I either think of supermarkets fighting to offer baked beans at the lowest possible prices, or clashes between corporate giants desperate to put each other out of business. In short, when that phrase arises, the voluntary sector does not readily come to mind.

However, it has long been recognised that we are all fighting for a finite amount of money and support. Many once-reliable income generators, such as local branches, street collections and legacies are changing or drying up. Greater competition, people living longer and an increasing need for older people to pay for their own care have all eaten into traditional sources of funds and, in turn, have led to even greater competition.

Clearly, the voluntary sector has to be market-driven and competition is an integral part of that. At the heart of voluntary organisations is the aim of working for the common good. In the rush for people's hearts, minds and wallets, we must avoid undermining those with whom we compete.

To those used to the world of hostile corporate takeovers, that may seem a naive hope, but the sector's adoption of commercial business practices is appropriate only if it helps us all to achieve our aims of social empowerment, advocacy and innovation in service provision.

We need to work alongside the corporate and statutory sectors as equal partners, with a clear idea of our own identity and what we want to achieve.

If we allow our business methods and practices to slide into an uncritical mirror image of the other sectors, there is a danger that we will lose sight of what sets us apart.

The voluntary sector places people above all else. In increasing our efficiency and effectiveness, we must treat stakeholders and competitors alike with the respect the our sector is associated with.

Voluntary organisations should work together to develop both an understanding of our sector and an understanding of what a fairer world entails and how it might be achieved. However, while it is important, the concept of fairness is not the only reason to show respect. It is one of our sector's unique selling points and, as such, could be commercial gold dust.

GERALDINE PEACOCK, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

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