Opinion: Hot issue - Is the sector at risk of betraying its own values?

Last week, a new inquiry from Community Links investigated the key values of the voluntary sector and asked whether competition for funds and the growing pressure for service delivery was undermining its core ethics.

NO: LORD VICTOR ADEBOWALE, chief executive, Turning Point

The question ignores the fact that voluntary sector organisations are already providing public services while remaining true to their fundamental principles.

Serving the public, in one way or another, is what we in the voluntary sector are all about. The people who receive services from us don't care about 'core values' - they care about the availability and level of service they receive.

I think this debate reveals an unhealthy habit of navel gazing - while we're all debating our core values, people continue to live in poverty and exclusion, gaps persist and need continues to go unmet.

Organisations such as Turning Point demonstrate that voluntary sector organisations can strike a balance - giving service users a voice through campaigning - and delivering high-quality public services.

The rise of social enterprise will empower the sector to enhance public service delivery through joining up care services around the needs of the service user.

As long as we can demonstrate value for money, and as long as we remain not-for-profit and focused on the needs of the people we serve, what's the problem?

NO: STEPHEN SEARS, chief executive, Ealing Community Transport

By taking our values into the delivery of mainstream services, we're actually spreading what we do and directing money away from the funding ghetto into the wider realms of public services.

As the sector has developed, the Government has taken the responsibility to provide a lot of the things we've been asking for - and that process is still going on.

If we set up, for the sake of argument, a pilot community transport scheme that was a great success, and the local council said it was terribly good, that would be great - but it might be funded independently for only three years.

If the local council wants to continue it, it's going to have to make it a mainstream service, and it's going to have to do that in an orderly way. But if we're the best providers of transport services, we should be doing our level best to win the right to provide it.

When the sector works with government, some compromises have to be made, but we are strong enough to retain our core values and provide a service without having our independence undermined.

YES: GERALDINE BLAKE, head of Links UK

The relationship with government and the way the sector is funded have the potential to change the sector's values. However, there have always been pressures that support or threaten the sector, so although the direct answer to the question is "yes", the qualification is "but it's not inevitable".

The greatest threat to values comes from the sector itself and involves organisations not focusing clearly on their values, chasing funding that does not fit their values, allowing the demands of running an organisation to overshadow values and allowing values to be influenced by those outside the sector.

It's not a question of whether organisations should deliver public services or not. Approaching it from the viewpoint of values begs different questions: is it consistent with your values to deliver this service? Does delivering this service enable a relationship with users that is consistent with your values? Organisations that focus on their values negotiate the terms of contracts in a way that reflects their values, or they turn them down.

Building every activity on values and measuring activity against values is the key to moulding, rather than being moulded by, the pressures that are being exerted on the sector.

YES: RICHARD GUTCH, chief executive, Futurebuilders England

"Yes" may seem like a surprising answer from the chief executive of Futurebuilders England. Futurebuilders is, after all, about investing in the sector to enable it to play a bigger role in public service delivery. Furthermore, there is no doubt that many third sector organisations can and will deliver valuable public services to their users without betraying their values.

But there is a risk that some organisations will pursue contracts with public sector commissioners that do not fit well with their mission and will then find themselves having to play to other people's agendas, which may not always be in the best interests of their users.

The way to manage this risk is to make sure service users are central to organisations' decision-making processes. This could mean seeking to influence the way public sector commissioners specify services and, if necessary, walking away from potentially attractive opportunities. Funders must continue to support campaigning and development work through grants. At the same time, finance schemes such as Futurebuilders can help organisations expand to help more people. This way, the sector can remain true to its values and play an important role in public service delivery.

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