Service User Voice: Voluntary sector: it ain’t what you do

I’ve been involved with the voluntary sector for many years, as an employee, as a trustee, and eventually, in helping to set up voluntary organisations. At the risk of making sweeping generalisations, each organisation seems to have followed a similar path in its attempts to succeed and survive.

If it’s successful, a new organisation will find public funding: few survive purely on public donations in the long term. The thing the founders feel so passionately about also interests those who hold the purse strings – local and central government, health trusts and the grant-making charities. As part of their drive to implement policy, these bodies invest relatively small amounts of money to see if anything good will come of it. In the Seventies, that’s how many Community Alcohol services started in the early Noughties, Service User Involvement.

Voluntary organisations quickly learn to play the game, fitting their proposals to the funding bodies’ ever-changing criteria. They become more entrepreneurial, spotting and riding trends in the “market” of ideas which currently attract funding.

They also look to tap into different funding streams, so that they aren’t wholly reliant on one source. With its own infrastructure to support, contracts to fulfil, and wages to pay, a voluntary organisation learns quickly that its first priority is to survive.

At some point, someone will say that this strategy has led the organisation away from its original purpose. And somebody else might, regretfully, point out that the funders’ priorities have changed, and, by following the funding, they might be able to do something for their intended beneficiaries, even if it’s not what they originally intended.

The National Audit Office report, on the public funding of large charities, pointed out that £742m is paid out to the 12 largest national charities to provide public services, but that this is meted out in small, fragmented “funding relationships”. Although they may be doing a lot of good work, this is the same story writ large.

This way of funding means that it’s harder for voluntary organisations to be the real innovators, to invest in developing genuinely new ideas, rather than just following the funders’ priorities.

The first thing I noticed in the first charity I worked for was a sign that said: “When you’re up to your arse in alligators, you forget that the original idea was to drain the swamp”. As true today as it was then.

This article appeared in the 16 August issue under the headline “It ain’t what you do”

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