The sector's solution, part one: 'banish self-pity and focus on the opportunities'

Yesterday John Tizard, an independent strategic adviser and formerly founding director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships, assessed the problems facing the voluntary sector. Today he examines the way forward

John Tizard
John Tizard

So what is to be done about the growing sense of anger, helplessness and deep frustration in the sector that I described yesterday? While there are clearly no easy answers, I offer some thoughts.

First, the sector has to stop feeling sorry for itself and recognise the need for change. The truth is that, historically, it has always evolved to meet changing needs and respond to contemporary economic and social conditions. 

The sector is a dynamic one that is and always has been constantly repositioning itself in order to promote the needs and aspirations of its beneficiaries in changed political environments. Today is no exception. There is, and is going to be, less public money. As a result, change is inevitable and it is happening all around us.

Individual organisations are constantly making their own choices and decisions, and looking at all the options available to them. This is a natural evolution. Change need not diminish values or mission – the key driver and imperative, surely, must be simply to ensure sustainability and relevance to beneficiaries.

And it may be that some organisations reach a view that their mission is no longer relevant and consequently take more radical and fundamental decisions. I envisage more mergers and acquisitions in the voluntary sector as one means of sustaining sufficient critical mass and to use scarce resources most effectively. And on a positive note, this trend is also likely to lead to a stronger voice for communities.

Even where organisations are not considering mergers, they should be considering shared services, premises and key personnel. Infrastructure bodies should most certainly see one of their roles as being to organise support and specialist services for local organisations. It is also possible that a local authority or the private sector could supply support services such as finance, HR and IT, as well as premises. 

Nothing can or should be ruled out if voluntary and community organisations are going to remain true to their mission – and note that the core mission does not specifically include the provision of one’s own support services.

When contracting or considering contracting with the public sector, voluntary organisations should also learn some lessons from the best of the private sector. More commercial acumen is required. Bids need to be costed properly so as to ensure that risks are effectively identified, quantified and managed – and there needs to be a tougher discipline around deciding when to bid and when not to bid. 

One of the reasons for the success of major private sector public service companies is their bid opportunity qualification processes, which give them the ability to say "no" to contracts that would be disadvantageous or damaging to the business. For the voluntary sector, such a qualification process has to include: questioning relevance to mission; the ability to sustain values, operational capacity and competency; risk management and mitigation; a short and long-term financial analysis, including how any necessary capital will be secured; and a feel as to whether the chemistry is right with the public body. 

Voluntary sector organisations will also need to understand what their users and beneficiaries want and be highly influenced by this – but not at the expense of damaging their greater long-term objectives. 

Where there are existing contracts, the sector should firmly resist unilaterally and adversely imposed changes. Yes, this will be hard to achieve, but the effort must be made, and the sector collectively needs to make legal and other resources available to support smaller organisations in taking the same actions.

The sector must avoid being drawn into a position where it feels that it has no choice but to accept under-funded contracts. These should be entered into only when an organisation is clear abouthow and why it is prepared to subsidise the public sector and in what manner this fits its mission. The sector should not find itself arguing for or accepting diminished rights and terms for staff in order to make contracts affordable. Rather, any changes should be negotiated collectively, lest the sector be at risk of alienating staff and trade unions when they should be natural allies.

Tomorrow – The solution part 2: 'building  bridges with local authorities'

John Tizard works in the business, public and social sectors. He is a trustee at Navca, Tomorrow’s People, ACF and Action Space and is on the board of the Social Investment Business. He is also a former council leader

Read Tizard's first commentary: The sector's problem: 'anger, helplessness and deep frustration'

Read Tizard's third commentary: The sector's solution part two: 'build bridges with the council'

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