Britain is divided. The Brexit vote showed the insecurity and frustration felt by many. Britons are pessimistic about the future. Political parties on left and right are far from developing clear programmes or broad coalitions of support. Neither can succeed without recognising and strengthening the contribution of the voluntary sector. It’s high time we told this story. We’re missing an open goal. Let’s figure out why, and do something about it.
What is our contribution? It can scarcely be overstated. Voluntary sector organisations have a combined income of more than £45bn and employ more than 850,000 people, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.
Charities big and small make a positive difference to millions of people every day, helping them overcome loneliness, homelessness and mental health challenges, restoring public space, building relationships across divided communities, and so much more. In every area charities also help national government to find effective solutions by putting forward ideas and evidence, and mobilising public support.
If the UK is to meet the great social challenges of our time, the voluntary sector must be bigger, stronger and more influential. Governments really matter. Good policies change lives and the wrong policies do terrible harm. But governments do not know it all and they cannot be everywhere. They lack the skills or the trust to make the individual and community interventions that change lives for good. It’s evident to virtually all now that a philosophy of individualism cannot address the many challenges we face. The size, strength and influence of the voluntary sector are critical ingredients in making the UK a cohesive society for the next decade and beyond.
So why has neither Theresa May, the Prime Minister, nor Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, consistently recognised our contribution or set out how they can strengthen it? It’s remarkable how little attention either leader has given to this.
Theresa May’s "shared society" speech more than a year ago recognised our role, but offered no plan for how government should empower us. The impression given to charities that speak out and campaign is often of downright hostility. Cross-party proposals to reform the lobbying act were rejected out of hand by the current government.
Labour has been much more supportive, but neither party has set out a clear analysis of the role of government in enhancing the contribution the voluntary sector can make.
Why? First and foremost, it’s because we have not told them. We should be saying this loudly, with pride and passion – but we’re not. We have the best communicators, campaigners and advocates in Britain. They do incredible work highlighting problems and solutions to homelessness, mental health, the refugee crisis and so many other pressing social and environmental issues. But when it comes to talking about the collective role we play and how government can enhance this, we’re failing on the basics. What’s our key message? Who are our key targets? Who is best equipped to carry our message to different targets? What’s our theory of change?
We appear to lack answers to all these questions. Instead, we’re wrapped up in complex, long-running, inward-facing processes. There’s no point having a commission on how government should reform charity taxation if we haven’t won the argument that we’re a sector worth supporting. I’d swap a two-year inquiry for an effective influencing strategy.
Of course, the voluntary sector has enemies. There are those in politics and the media who want us to "stick to the knitting", to abandon our historic role as champions of injustice and passionate advocates for change. These voices have made much of failures in the sector that have recently been exposed. They’ve been entitled to do so. Our fundraising practices still need to improve. We must leave no stone unturned in being the best we can be on safeguarding. We must continually improve our practices and be accountable for how we behave and the difference we make. But this does not require us to turn in on ourselves.
The second reason our political leaders don’t fully recognise or champion our role in society is that we’ve become too inward facing, preoccupied by threats and risks. I don’t underestimate those threats. Many charities are struggling financially and are beset by demand for their services that they cannot meet despite the incredible commitment of staff and volunteers. But we have to get our voice heard if we are to rise above those pressures and find solutions.
Finally, we’re in this position because we’ve become too siloed, failing to reach out and build alliances within and across our sectors. This has to change. To get our voice heard we need to work better together, persuading government of our role in responding to particular social challenges such as loneliness, homelessness and mental health, and also of our overall contribution to society. Our missions overlap. It’s time we did.
The Prime Minister got it absolutely right in her 2017 speech: "We are a country built on the bonds of family, community and citizenship, and there is no greater example of the strength of those bonds than our great movement of charities and social enterprises."
Britain’s future depends on a bigger, stronger and more influential voluntary sector. It’s time to put our influencing skills to work.
Stephen Hale is chief executive of Refugee Action @shalegeneva