The sector must form its own vision independently of government, says Sir Stuart Etherington

In an open letter about the election, the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations also calls the government's enthusiasm for social investment a 'glib search for novelty and quick fixes'

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has called on the sector to form its own vision for voluntary action and not rely on government to do so.

In an open letter issued to coincide with today’s general election, Etherington also criticises the outgoing government’s enthusiasm for social investment as an "eager but ultimately glib search for novelty and quick fixes", which he says cannot be the answer to everything.

"I believe that no government is going to find a vision for voluntary action, nor should we want them to," writes Etherington. "We need to look to our own sector for our own solutions.

"This is not to say that the government does not make a difference or that parties’ policy positions do not matter – they do. But we also need to set our own course for voluntary action over the medium term, and to make our own case for what voluntary organisations can bring to the table when dealing with society’s challenges."

He says that political parties at best can facilitate social action and be driving forces for change, but at their worst they are "prone to gimmicks, to crowd-pleasing, to relying on simplistic, dogmatic approaches for complex and nuanced issues".

He says: "We see this hopeful, eager but ultimately glib search for novelty and quick fixes in the outgoing government’s enthusiasm for social investment. Yes, it has potential, but it cannot be the answer to everything."

He also calls for ongoing grant funding for the voluntary sector, something he says is too often seen as a "dull relic of the past". Grants should be seen as the "risk capital of the future", says Etherington.

He says the sector must "find a way to get on and get through without government, as we so often have", and questions whether the sector has lacked confidence.

"If so, we shouldn’t," he writes. "The solutions to many of our challenges are within ourselves. My vision is of an open, independent civil society that builds upon the strengths of all sectors, encouraging and catalysing the energies and resources of everyone in society, always acting in the public benefit and therefore trusted by the public.

"It is a civil society unafraid of holding to account those with power, speaking up for those without it and supporting those who want to create their own future."

In practice, he says, this means that voluntary sector organisations should be transparent and accountable, "setting their own standards rather than waiting for regulators to require them".

Etherington says that voluntary organisations should be open to new forms of finance and funding, while reminding existing funding bodies that their first duty is to do voluntary action no harm.

He says the sector should not ask ‘how can someone else do this for us’, but ask itself, as it always has, how it can do things itself.

"The last thing we want is to have any given party’s idea of how we should be enforced upon us."

He says that voluntary organisations all have more to do on transparency.

"As opacity is eroded elsewhere – through greater disclosure in the public sector and through increasingly rigorous reporting requirements for publicly listed companies – the voluntary sector must not be left lagging," he writes.

And he says that in the coming weeks the NCVO will consult members on their views about extending the Freedom of Information Act to outsourced public services, including those delivered by voluntary sector organisations.

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