Opinion: Hot issue - Should the charity sector speak with one voice?

The Government's Active Community Unit has said the sector should speak with a united voice, but a recent survey by the Directory of Social Change suggests that its diversity makes this an unrealistic expectation


To perform such a feat responsibly, a single sector voice would need to spend so much time representing the plurality of views within the sector that the overall effect would inevitably be one of dilution. Diversity is one of the defining characteristics of our sector and it is far healthier to celebrate it than chop off the awkward rough edges to present government with a cosy, artificially generated consensus.

This is not to suggest that collaborative work in the sector where there are common goals is unhelpful. For example, even in the relatively small area I work in - promoting quality of life for people with arthritis - there is a huge range of values and approaches, from medical care to rights-based campaigning. But I currently chair both the UK umbrella body in arthritis and the network of European user groups, precisely because we will progress more quickly on specific issues if we present a unified approach.

Current differences of view on the delivery of public services highlight the fact that although debate might inconvenience government, it actually plays a vital role in preserving the sector as a safe house for those who stand up for what they believe.


The single most powerful thing that emerged from NCVO's consultation last year is that there is something that binds us together as a sector.

It is that we share certain values, which are identifiably distinct from those of the public and private sectors. These values are expressed in many different ways, but the essence is consistent: we believe in the power of people and communities to changes their own lives and the lives of other people.

Voluntary and community organisations, from the largest charities to the smallest local groups, give a voice to some of the most marginalised individuals and communities in our society, tackling issues from child poverty to homelessness and disability issues to animal rights.

The sector is able to, and regularly does, speak to government with one voice - in coalitions and partnerships - on issues of common concern, such as the Criminal Records Bureau, VAT and the National Lottery. However, it is a healthy sector that enables a broad range of views to be expressed, representing different issues and concerns, including dissenting and unpopular views. One of the most important strengths of the voluntary and community sector is its diversity - we must celebrate this, not stifle it.


I have 18 years' experience of working in the sector. I recently set up an organisation called Citra specifically to try to bring the sector together to work on the technological issues we face. We already have 600 individuals actively engaged in these issues.

I recognise that there is great diversity in the sector, but there are huge numbers of common challenges that can be tackled as a whole. If the sector is to speak with one voice, there needs to be some leadership in this.

The Government may wish to provide funding for this role, but must make sure the lead body genuinely represents the sector. Sadly, the recent debacle with the ICT hub shows we have some way to go with effective collaboration.

If the NCVO is going to become the lead voice for a number of issues that affect the sector, including ICT, then it must lead by example and be seen to be an organisation that involves and consults widely. If the Government wants this one voice for the sector it has to get more actively involved. It cannot sit on the fence and expect this to happen by itself.


NGOs face in three directions - towards their partners in developing countries and the communities they serve; towards government and the powerful institutions of the developed north; and towards their own supporters.

Acknowledging that the resources they command are tiny compared with those of governments and institutions such as the World Bank, they engage in advocacy to ensure these resources are used to the best effect. The most high-profile form of advocacy is campaigning, where maybe hundreds of thousands of supporters are mobilised in order to impress decision-makers by their commitment and numbers.

In order to mobilise supporters, NGO coalitions need to have a common message. Coalitions need to demonstrate unity when it comes to mobilising campaigners. Of course, such coalitions sometimes creak because they bring together NGOs with different views. Differences are aired in private - but in public, NGO coalitions risk losing support if they are seen to be squabbling. Nor do they want to give the Government the option of choosing between them. The aim is to be effective - to serve the people in whose name we campaign.

That was the qualified success of Make Poverty History.

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