I recently delivered a lecture at the Directory of Social Change Awards and my comments on the subject of values clearly resonated, generating plenty of twittersphere traffic.
Our values set the voluntary sector apart from others, but somewhere along the way we appear to have lost our way. Our hard-won model of local action and national advocacy is slowly being eroded.
With so much political and economic upheaval, there’s never been a more important time for us to refocus our efforts on our values. But what does that mean in practice? For me, it’s about mirroring our own behaviour on the relationships we build with those we serve. Relationships that start by building trust with those whom society has largely disenfranchised or forgotten.
Take the relationship between large and small charities.
Our shared goal should be to ensure that services and support are provided to everyone who needs them. It shouldn’t be about who can accommodate the up-front costs and risks associated with commissioners and contracts. And that means making tough choices.
This could be charities – large and small – considering if they might displace a better placed local provider before they decide simply to step in and compete. Or exploring collaboration or offering support to local players. It could even be as simple as pointing the local provider out to commissioners – who should surely look local first, but often don’t seem to.
By competing to displace other providers, we’re effectively reducing the sum total of support available to those that desperately need it.
It means we get what commissioners can afford, rather than what is needed. Evidence from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that in most cases capacity does not map acute need. It’s what we at the foundation call "triple jeopardy". The areas of the highest need often have the smallest voluntary sector infrastructure and are those places that are most acutely affected by public sector cuts.
If our sector is focused on national advocacy and local action, we would actively work together to expose this and lobby for change.
This means robustly challenging policymakers and commissioners. But if they are our sole source of income, our ability and credibility to make those challenges is compromised.
National charities are far better placed to campaign against this, as are our trade bodies, especially where they have largely independent income. There are sectors not far from this model. Health is a good example: many of the large health charities have always seen their role as complementary to public provision – often through local groups – yet have also worked hard to hold the quality of that public provision to account. It's national advocacy and local action at play.
Paymasters generally like to call or hear their own tunes, and sometimes the carrot of contracting has displaced the stick of campaigning.
The impact we as a sector have is not dictated by the size of our balance sheets. In fact, some of those charities putting issues on the map are the smallest, such as Unseen UK and the profile it has generated around modern slavery.
Real social change starts from the bottom up. With real people at the heart of the thousands of small local organisations and groups that work tirelessly day in, day out. Building on their local action should be our default option and might just help us return to the "values that differentiate us".