The voluntary sector has too many overlapping voices struggling to be heard, according to recent research. But is it any surprise that organisations pursue their own interests, and can there ever be a united voice, asks Mathew Little.
In a speech last December, the newly appointed head of the government's Active Communities Directorate, Jitinder Kohli, expressed frustration with the voluntary sector's babble of tongues. There were too many voices speaking for the sector, he said. It needed a "consistent message".
Kohli's plea could be dismissed as the congenital bureaucrat's impatience with the messiness of the real world. But perhaps he had a point. Research by the Compass Partnership and OPM for the Home Office's Active Community Unit has revealed that there are 256 umbrella bodies representing the voluntary sector, and that statistic takes in only those working at a national level. Include the councils for voluntary service, volunteer bureaux, social action centres, community foundations and rural community councils at a local level, and the figure runs into thousands. Finding out what the sector thinks, wants or even needs is no easy task.
The Compass and OPM research concluded that at a national level the 256 dedicated infrastructure bodies offered "a sometimes overlapping and confusing array of functions" and were not providing leadership in areas such HR, funding, management skills, and legal and financial management.
But the Government's attempts to encourage more collaboration and co-operation at the top of the voluntary sector appear to be foundering.
A report by independent consultant David Carrington into the year-long feud over which umbrella bodies should run the capacity building ChangeUp programme's ICT hub was scathing about the culture of competition it exposed.
He condemned participants - a who's who of sector representatives including the NCVO, Acevo, the Institute of Fundraising and the Charity Finance Directors' Group - for "an intensity of mistrust" and "mutual lack of confidence". It was, he concluded, a "sorry and exceptionally time-consuming and energy-sapping saga". The Government's new strategy for sector infrastructure - Capacity Builders - excludes umbrella bodies from its management board.
Is this a sign of ministerial impatience?
But should we be surprised when umbrella bodies, in common with their members, pursue their organisational self-interest and compete for funds?
The Compass and OPM research found that the perennial blight of short-term government funding bedevils the umbrellas as it does the rest of the sector. They are "dominated by the need to survive".
Nonetheless, according to Ben Hughes, chief executive of Bassac, which represents social action centres and settlements, sector umbrella bodies are in danger of being seduced by a commercial mentality. "The sector is more and more exposed to private sector models," he says. "But charities are not businesses existing in a cut-throat open market. We are all in receipt of grant aid, which is public money. Accepting public money should not entail promoting very commercially based models of empire building. It is about delivering to mission - and there is a danger of mission slip."
But Hughes believes the Home Office's ChangeUp programme, despite teething problems, is promoting a new model of co-operation and pluralism among umbrella bodies. "What has been interesting is the attempt to change the status quo and shift power away from some of those who traditionally do hold a lot of power and resources in the sector," he says. "That's been very threatening. It's begun to challenge the whole way the sector is resourced. There is far too much desire to work with small minorities that are relatively well-resourced as an alternative to upsetting the status quo and causing political discomfort."
The NCVO, mistrusted by many other organisations, according to the Carrington report, says the image of umbrella bodies squabbling over the spoils of multi-million pound government programmes is unrepresentative of the way many work happily together. The NCVO, for example, runs the secretariat for the National Umbrella Forum, which has amassed 140 members since its launch in 2002, including the Directory of Social Change, the Charities Aid Foundation and the Charity Finance Directors' Group. It helps members to share best practice and measure their performance.
"I think there is an enormous amount more co-operation and collaboration than there is competition," says NCVO membership services manager Ben Kernighan. He cites the Compact as an example of umbrella bodies coming together productively to work on an initiative of benefit to the entire sector. "Unfortunately, co-operation, collaboration and different umbrellas working well together don't often hit the pages of the media. It's not such a juicy story."
Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, is also at pains to point out the close working relationship that the chief executives' body has with the NCVO, despite a widespread perception that they are competing for the ear of government. "Some people like to think there are divisions and arguments, but chief executive Stuart Etherington and I meet regularly, and our chairs meet up - it's important that we do work together," he says. "Any divisions are not helpful in terms of promoting the sector as a whole."
So does NCVO see Acevo as a rival? Bubb's response is a prolonged, slightly nervous chuckle. "Have you asked them that?" he says. "They ought not to see us as a rival. On occasions they do. But I've never heard it suggested that we shouldn't exist."
But even if the Government persuades the sector's umbrella bodies to put aside organisational self-interest, can it ever be sure they are conduits for the real views of the voluntary sector? The sector is famously diverse - 150,000 general charities, with an uncountable hinterland of community groups. It would be impossible to represent them all and, statistically, few umbrella bodies come close. The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action has the most impressive ratio, with 970 members out of a sector comprising about 3,500 organisations.
The NCVO has seen its membership more than double since 2000, when it changed its constitution to allow local organisations to become full members.
But the current total of 3,700 is still a tiny proportion of the sector as a whole in England. About 100 members are umbrella bodies themselves, and 300 are local infrastructure organisations such as councils for voluntary service, which themselves represent thousands of individual organisations.
"Our reach is bigger than that number would suggest," says Kernighan.
"Most businesses are not members of the CBI, but I don't think people would say that the CBI doesn't speak for business." He says NCVO has also run more than 60 consultations in the past 12 months and has held listening meetings across England.
The NCVO still brands itself as "voice of the voluntary sector" but Kernighan emphasises that it is not the voice - a semantic subtlety that will be lost on some.
Mike Eastwood, chair of the National Association of Councils for Voluntary Service, claims it is impossible for one organisation to represent the sector in all matters. "The large national charities are few in number and massive in influence," he says. "And that's where the money's concentrated.
But the typical voluntary sector person is a local volunteer, not a metropolitan professional. So if membership bodies are populated by metropolitan professionals, they can never be typical of the mass of voluntary activity across the country."
NACVS is itself an umbrella body for local umbrella bodies, and Eastwood concedes it is difficult to make the connection with the real grass-roots of the voluntary sector. "Representative government doesn't work through constant referenda, but through an assumed understanding - I think the representative voluntary sector works on the same basis," he says. "But there does need to be some reality check sometimes, and that's difficult to achieve."
Although NACVS strives to be representative, Eastwood says it can't represent its members on everything. This means, he says, that there will be times when other umbrella organisations will represent the interests of NACVS members.
Eastwood adds that the focus of infrastructure organisations on their particular constituencies is unlikely to reduce the number of umbrella groups, whereas the Government seems keen for the sector to do the opposite.
"The Government wants a far more rationalised sector," he says. "It sounds neat, but what would a nicely organised and unduplicated infrastructure sector look like?"
Ben Hughes says the sector is not a "homogeneous unit" and can't conform to the Government's desired blueprint. "You can't homogenise the unhomogenisable," he says. "But there is an urgent need for umbrella bodies to be much more creative in the way we rise to the challenge."
He argues that more collaboration is necessary, whether it be co-location, sharing back-office functions or working together on policy when possible.
Acevo has a practical idea: let all the umbrella bodies share the same building - a "third sector house, co-operating better but accepting that there are distinct functions", according to Stephen Bubb.
"The sector has never followed a Stalinist model, that you're only allowed to have one view and one organisation. But we're not Maoist either, and letting a thousand flowers bloom wouldn't be helpful. We need some sensible arrangements."