Opinion: The sector is two types of dog

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust, but writes in a personal capacity

This week's Acevo conference is being billed as the biggest annual gathering of chief executives, chairs and trustees within the third sector.

Provocatively titled Society's Watchdog or Government's Poodle?, the conference will provide a platform for the debate of the moment: is the sector's independence under threat?

No doubt there will be criticism of the growing involvement of charities in public service delivery, concern about the dependency on rising levels of state subsidy and worries about the voluntarism of the voluntary sector.

There is no question that the changing nature of the third sector requires scrutiny. Recent years have seen enormous shifts in the role, status and image of the sector, now to be accompanied - at last - by reform of charity law. But there are also worrying signs that the debate could polarise the sector into two camps, those representing charities who are in a position to deliver services or that receive government funding (so-called poodles) and those that want nothing whatsoever to do with the state (so-called watchdogs).

The reality is that few organisations fit exclusively into either camp and a fragmentation of the sector in this way would be damaging. Indeed, the most innovative organisations in the sector are trying to combine and not separate service delivery and campaigning roles.

One such organisation, the RNID, was voted the most innovative charity of the year by Third Sector readers. This accolade was well deserved.

The RNID has helped to bring about radical change by working in partnership with the Government and public services to improve audiology services and help for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. At the same time, the organisation's growing confidence and sense of purpose has made it a campaigning force to be reckoned with. Its annual Impact Report provides clear evidence that its watchdog role is stronger than ever.

So as we debate whether the sector is becoming more poodle and less watchdog, we would do well to remember that cross-breeding has much going for it.

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