Talk about the future of the sector, report tells charity leaders

Third Sector Research Centre study criticises 'defensive emphasis on survival' and lack of discussion about current changes

Third Sector Research Centre
Third Sector Research Centre

Charity leaders should overcome historic rivalries to start a debate about the future of the voluntary sector, according to a paper published today by the Third Sector Research Centre.

Third Sector Leadership: the power of narrative says leaders need to address the sector’s significant transformation in its shape, role and relationship with the state.

"The sector is currently experiencing a radical shift in its political and economic environment," it says.

"Much of the sector’s conversation appears to have shifted towards a rather defensive emphasis on survival and ‘resilience’, along with an intensified focus on collaboration and merger, and increasingly desperate attempts to demonstrate impact and value for money."

The paper is critical of the lack of cohesive discussion about the changes that are taking place.

"Third sector leaders give interviews, make individual speeches and write occasionally entertaining blogs, but there appears to be no sustained sector-wide conversation about the potential transformation under way," it says.

"In the absence of such a sector-wide dialogue, it is possible that the major shake-up being experienced by third sector organisations is accompanied only by a rather defensive, narrow and increasingly noisy pursuit of sectional claims and interests."

The paper highlights recent attempts to develop charity leadership, such as the creation of the skills body Skills – Third Sector, the expansion of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the Clore Social Leadership Programme and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' Leadership 20:20 Commission.

It says that although many of these initiatives might have carried out valuable work, they could also be seen in a depressing light.

"It might look like a whole lot of organisations, networks and partnerships falling over each other to stake a claim around third sector leadership and to proclaim their particular leadership ‘take’ for their particular interests or constituencies – wanting to be leaders in leadership," it says.

National sector umbrella bodies such as Acevo, the NCVO and local infrastructure group Navca should provide a stronger narrative about the role of civil society and its dealings with government, according to the report. 

"The question which remains is whether third sector leaders can overcome historic rivalries and the competition for scarce resources to forge a new strategic alliance," it says.

Rob Macmillan, one of the report’s authors, wrote in a blog post about the paper: "A significant transformation in the sector’s shape, role and relationship with the state, and the market, is in prospect. It all amounts to a massive upheaval. Yet no one seems to be talking about it."

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