Keep your distance

This week, research findings show that large voluntary
organisations have been transformed – not necessarily for the
better – by their symbiotic relationship with the state, while
small organisations have been left out in the cold.

Meanwhile, the influx of public money has not brought one of the
main benefits the sector might expect: stability. In fact,
short-term funding is often a poisoned chalice for small
organisations, while forcing large ones to use other income to
bolster what are effectively public services – further reducing the
range of provision.

Furthermore, the recent consultation paper on the voluntary and
community sector infrastructure, issued by the Home Office’s Active
Community Unit, missed an opportunity to move rapidly from asking
the big questions to providing some answers that will help the
sector organise itself in order to contribute in the way the
government wants.

The concerns about this consultation highlight the dilemma the
sector is in. There is no choice but to grab the large carrot the
government is holding out. But on the other hand, there are risks
attached which hit at the heart of the sector’s very identity – and
its many roles in our society.

For the relationship between voluntary and community organisations
and government – whether national or local – should never be too
cosy. Instead of charities being commissioned to meet the needs of
a particular marginalised group, as identified by the local
council, for example, the members of that group themselves need the
capacity to organise, to identify their own needs, and to obtain
funding locally to meet them. This process should lead to the
development of small, local organisations, often led by service
users, often arising from communities that are still represented
only tokenistically, if at all, in consultations.

These are the infrastructures that really need supporting – but
they’re not necessarily the ones that will deliver the top-down
requirements set by central government, by local authorities, or
even by large national voluntary organisations.

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