The voluntary sector in Wales is entering a period as important to its development as the shake-up it experienced when New Labour came into power in 1997, according to the recently retired chief executive of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
Graham Benfield, who retired from the WCVA a month ago after 25 years, told Third Sector that he sees an understanding emerging that – given reduced public spending levels, an ageing population and a limit to the kind of activities the electorate is prepared to do – future community services are going to have to be very different to those currently in place.
"What the government is going to need to do is create a new kind of contract with the third sector," he said. "The third sector can mobilise and energise people in a way that the public or private sectors cannot do, particularly when you’re talking about volunteering.
"We’re on the cusp of another era as significant as the change in 1997."
Citing the debate about libraries closing down, which has touched several communities over the past few years, Benfield advocated the implementation of a co-production model. He said that instead of closing them down, volunteers could help to run libraries, if local government was prepared to mix its contribution with that of the community.
Before he retired from the WCVA, Benfield drew up a five-year plan for the organisation, which focused on promoting co-production and on digitalising support services.
One priority he cited was to widen access to social finance, and the WCVA is now in talks with credit unions about debt redemption – moving people off payday loans and on to credit union loans.
Benfield said that charities in Wales should access charitable foundations and trusts more, because a lack of high-quality applications meant the nation’s charities did not get their fair share.
"The WCVA has a responsibility to be able to compete at the highest levels against the English consortia," said Benfield. "We’re a small country, but we’ve got to play big sometimes."
He said that progress still needed to be made in merging the back-office operations of charities and encouraging them to share research and policy.