Voluntary groups are displaying 'Animal Farm syndrome' as they behave more like the public bodies whose functions they hope to inherit, according to the results of a year-long inquiry.
Living Values: Encouraging Boldness in Third Sector Organisations was produced by Community Links for the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. It looked into the values of the voluntary sector and the threats to them.
"There is a risk that, in following our enthusiasm for big public sector contracts, third sector organisations will become co-conspirators with the Government," said Geraldine Blake, co-author of the report. "The biggest threat comes not from outside forces, but from third sector organisations not using their values to guide the choices they make."
Initiatives such as Change Up, Capacitybuilders and the forthcoming cross-cutting review made the time ripe for the sector to refocus its values, she added.
The inquiry was based on interviews and focus groups with 70 leaders, academics and trustees from all sectors. Participants included Acevo head Stephen Bubb, Tory leader David Cameron and Luke FitzHerbert of the Directory of Social Change.
Respondents identified values they felt were unique to the sector, including empowering people and transforming lives.
However, they felt the Government's top-down approach, short termism and a target and output-centred environment threatened the sector's values.
"Central government is so prescriptive," Julian Corner, chief executive of Revolving Doors Agency, told the inquiry. "We say 'here are the needs of the community' and the local authority says 'we know, but this is what we've been told to spend our money on'."
The lack of core funding also compromises values, according to Anne Haxell, director of the community group Magpie. "The statutory sector's lack of understanding for full cost recovery and a lack of joined-up thinking make it easier to get small, simple projects funded than projects that really meet complex needs," she said.
However, respondents felt it was possible to work with government without compromising the sector's values. Stephen Sears from Ealing Community Transport told researchers: "The sector's most important strength is its diversity. It doesn't matter that we have become a service provider because there will always be space for new campaigners."
In the report, Richard Gutch, chief executive of Futurebuilders, emphasised the importance of charities staying in touch with their grass roots. "It's about keeping your own flame burning, but being systematic about revisiting the values," he said.
The full findings of the inquiry will be launched at the Living Values conference in London on 23 June.
- See Editorial, page 22.