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Myths about the voluntary sector - Parts 1 and 2

8 Sep 2015 - 14:38 by Mike Wild

A few weeks back I met with a group of voluntary & community sector leaders working with children young people and families and our local Director of Children's Services. We were talking about how to build the relationship between the sectors so we hit on the idea of writing a blog to challenge a few myths and misconceptions which tend to distort the relationship.

What follows was written for an audience of people working in the public sector and in social services roles. That said, there is enough here which is generally true of the relationships between the sectors (in Manchester at least) that I thought it was worth sharing more widely.

Myth 1: The voluntary sector wants to take over running Council and NHS services.

Firstly, let’s tackle the issue of what we call ourselves: “voluntary sector” is usually a catch-all to cover charities, voluntary organisations, community groups, co-operatives, social enterprises and the community work done by faith organisations. “Third sector” and “civil society” are also used a lot. I like the term “social sector” but “voluntary sector” is the one most people recognise. It’s interesting to think that there are two ways of interpreting that: voluntary could relate to volunteers (lots of people assume that everyone who works in the voluntary sector doesn’t get paid) but it can also mean “choosing to do something”. All the organisations in this sector don’t have to exist it’s not prescribed in law: they’re there because people are working together to try to achieve something and once it’s achieved, the organisation is wound up.

Of course it’s not as simplistic as that (wouldn’t we all love to be able to say all problems are now solved?) but it’s important to understand the ethos of the voluntary sector: at the most fundamental level our aim is to create a situation where we’re not needed any more. As organisations, our job – and one of the legal obligations on us – is to use every resource, every bit of energy and every penny we have in pursuit of our “objects”, the charitable purposes the law recognises. We have to account for that publicly every year. So not only is there a not-for-profit drive, we’re focused by law on the benefit we create for the groups and causes set out in our founding principles. People and values first – that’s the common cause we have with the public sector.

The roots of this are clear if you remember that most things which the public sector now does began as charitable activities – everything from schools to social work started this way. The history of the voluntary sector is to take action to show how needs can be met and encourage the public sector to adopt this model. For many organisations, getting the public sector to take up the service / cause was the point at which they achieved their object and wound down. Over the last 20 years this has changed slightly: it’s been realised that sometimes the voluntary sector is better placed to deliver some things than the statutory sector. Sometimes that’s because of the nature of the work - independent advocacy, for example. Sometimes it’s because as smaller organisations we can operate more flexibly, informally and tap into other resources (funding for example) which large public bodies can’t. Sometimes it’s the simple fact that we’re *not* the Council: the lack of statutory powers, means that the voluntary sector is sometimes more able to build the trust and confidence of children, young people and families that are struggling.

Myth 2: Commissioners want the voluntary sector to take over running Council and NHS services because it’s cheaper.

Sometimes we are “cheaper” though actually it’s a very risky assumption. This is more complex than there’s time to address here, but here are a few points to consider:

  • Outsourcing to the voluntary sector doesn’t cost “the system” less: if a voluntary organisation takes on an outsourced contract, staff have rights under TUPE and pension entitlements. Apart from the fact that I’ve never met anyone who joined the voluntary sector to erode the rights of workers, there’s the simple economics of not being able to run a contract which is worth less than the staff costs which come with it. So that money has to come from somewhere. It’s also worth noting that the Charity Commission has been very clear that charitable organisations must not use charitable funding to subsidise the costs of delivering statutory contracts.

  • How would you feel as a member of the public donating to a charity if you found out that your donation was being used to subsidise a public sector contract which the charity had bid for?

  • Cost comparisons are often misleading because people in the public sector don’t tend to know the costs of the overheads in the way that people in small voluntary sector organisations do. Voluntary organisations need to cover all their costs – there’s no “core cost” funding any more – for things like HR, financial management, health & safety, cleaning, training, insurance, legal, etc. All those costs apply to voluntary sector organisations just as they do with any other body in the public or private sector. Commissioners don’t often recognise this because, within their own organisation, there are entire departments for things like HR, financial management, etc. It’s worth noting that most commissioners expect that savings can be found through cutting overheads and that this won’t impact on delivery: but voluntary organisations are often run on minimal overheads anyway and, particularly at the moment, have stripped overheads to the bare minimum

  • Staff costs for social workers are set to a national scale so there aren’t savings to be found there: the costs are the same for all providers.

  • Voluntary sector organisations often bring considerable added and social value, which means that funders get more benefit for the same money.

  • There is a lot of concern in the voluntary sector about the increasing pressure to take over the running of services and use volunteers to deliver work which was previously delivered by paid staff. It’s difficult to draw a simple line around this as involving the users of services in the design and delivery of the services is something most of the sector believes creates better services – children young people and families empowered as the experts in their own lives. But this about delivering services differently and will be doomed from the start if it’s automatically assumed to be cheaper. Equally, if you take an example like a library which might otherwise close due to loss of funding, if the community is willing to get together and run the service on a voluntary basis does that mean they’re replacing paid staff or is that different?

  • Volunteering isn’t free. The costs are frequently underestimated by public sector commissioners: you have to recruit, train and supervise volunteers, they have to be insured and they should be paid out of pocket expenses. (There should also be a participation budget, ideally, to allow access to volunteering – e.g. for people with physical, sensory and learning disabilities.)

  • Most voluntary organisations and the people who work in them would, given half a chance, far rather talk to you about their cause and the work they do than money. Most are passionate, powered by a spark of values and get out of bed every day motivated by trying to make the world a better place. Collectively we spend a lot of time in partnership meetings, running campaigns and talking to policy makers about what needs to change. Most of us would rather not have to talk about money at all, but if your car is running low on fuel you’re probably going to talk about petrol at some point.

Myth 3:

...will follow tomorrow...

UPDATE: Click here to read Parts 3 and 4

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