Reform of public services is again top of the government’s agenda. Ministers say they want to involve the voluntary sector, and its advocates are now demanding an even bigger role in this reform. But perhaps there is still a discussion to be had about the voluntary sector reforming itself. At Community Care Live, Bob Holman, veteran community activist and academic, highlighted some problems. He told of a few big organisations taking the lion’s share of funding for the whole sector. He condemned 100k-plus chief executives who are paid more than many voluntary organisations receive as annual funding.
Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says the groups could transform the way public services are delivered and run them “from the bottom upto deliver better outcomes”.
Sounds great and entirely consistent with traditional values associated with voluntarism. But, during Etherington’s watch, the voluntary sector has been moving in a different direction.
The emphasis has been on managerialism and business culture. Bottom lines, performance indicators and mission statements have become the defining features of big national and international voluntary organisations.
Despite the pleas of campaigners such as Holman, the move has been to expensive metropolitan offices, high-paid directorates, bigger bureaucracies and high-profile branding. Check out how many big voluntary bodies are now led by figures from the state and private sectors, transferring their cultures rather than cultivating the values of voluntarism.
Concerns have also been widely expressed that, as voluntary organisations have become more involved in providing services in a contract culture, they are less able to offer the advocacy that has historically been key to their independent role.
But even more worrying developments may be emerging. Again we can look to multinational corporations to make sense of them. In her text, No Logo, Naomi Klein argued that the most successful multinational brands, from Nike to Tommy Hilfiger, do not make anything. They outsource their manufacture and concentrate instead on getting their brand – their logo – everywhere. The brand is all.
Are we beginning to see big charities do just the same thing? These multi-million pound turnover organisations now sell who they are, not what they do. They are encouraging us to become walking advertisements for them, with wrist bands, badges and T-shirts. Some are offloading service provision and prioritising their campaigning role.
But how effective and focused are their campaigns now that government is their key funding source? Campaign slogans are becoming grander and vaguer. Are we really going to make poverty history and end child cruelty in a world where war, conflict and large-scale violence against women and children are more endemic than ever before and inequalities widen in the UK? Meanwhile the reality of their work is highlighted by offices full of fundraising personnel, “celebrity sections” and glitzy “charity” events. How long will people keep giving to “charidee” just to sustain the image of its biggest institutions?
At the same time, those organisations which have the qualities with which the voluntary sector likes to associate itself – small, bottom-up and close to service users – continue to struggle with minimal funding and little security.
They have to compete with the big voluntaries on an unequal basis and often feel that their voice is taken by them. Scope has recently epitomised this: trying to offload its services, amid a barrage of complaints from service users, while presenting itself as the spokesperson for the rights of disabled people. There are certainly problems with state services, but radical reassessment of the voluntary sector is now overdue.
Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel University, and is involved with the mental health system survivor movement.