Too big, too rich

There is much to admire in both statutory and voluntary
services. Society needs them both. The former should ensure a
decent quality of life for all people. The latter, as well as
providing certain services, are, as William Beveridge made clear,
an essential part of democracy. They should constitute a practice
and a voice which is independent of government.

Voluntary bodies have multiplied in number and size. NCH, for
instance, has an income of £199m and more than 500 projects.
This growth owes much to the contract culture in which central and
local government contracts with mainly large voluntaries to carry
out statutory obligations. New Labour is keen to run down direct
state provision and it is anticipated that the offloading to
voluntary and private agencies will increase by 50 per cent by

The contracting to voluntary bodies has advantages. Frequently
they have an expertise which results in services of quality.
However, it has led to criticisms. One is that they are no longer
independent. Social care commentator Robert Whelan says that “the
larger the presence of the state in the voluntary sector, the more
the state defines what voluntary is.” They are no longer
independent and innovatory.

Another criticism is that, once voluntaries achieve large
incomes, they become part of the establishment and lose their
campaigning edge. A further commentator, Madeline Bunting, writes:
“Many of the 60s radical campaigning charities have hit middle age
plump with funding and, since 1997, are increasingly close to
governmentÉ their role of ‘speaking truth to power’ gets close
to inaudible.”

The great campaigner Peter Townsend refused to compromise when
approached about a peerage but fears that today some leaders are
less adversarial towards those in power because they “are trying to
cultivate the award of a knighthood or OBE”.

These criticisms have some substance but are too sweeping.
Leading child care charities indicated that they would refuse to
take government contracts to run institutions for young offenders.
Some are still innovative, with the Children’s Society initiating
refuges for runaways and Quarriers maintaining youth and family
services in unfashionable rural places.

Moreover, more moderate-sized agencies are prepared to conflict
with those in power. The East London Community Organisation helped
poorly paid cleaners to confront financial institutions in Canary
Wharf and won a living wage. ATD Fourth World – run not by what
Iain Duncan Smith calls the posh metropolitan elite but by poor
people themselves – frequently voices what it means to be
My own concern is that in the voluntary world, the rich are getting
richer and the poor poorer. The big boys make up 1.6 per cent of
all voluntary bodies yet receive 68 per cent of all funding. With
local authorities spending so much on contracts, they have cut
grants to community groups. Distressingly, the top agencies, some
with millions in reserves, appear not to worry about what is
happening to projects at the real hard end.

I hope voluntary organisations of all sizes will thrive. I have
four wishes: first, that voluntary societies should not take more
than a third of their income from statutory sources. They should
form their own agenda not that of government. Second, that they
should maintain their time-honoured role of doing what statutory
bodies do not do well. Examples include Baaf Adoption and
Fostering’s focus on the negatives and positives of private
fostering during the years when it was all but ignored by
government, and a community project in Easterhouse that pioneered
breakfast clubs for children and is now focusing on bringing
together youngsters from rival gangs. Much remains: identifying
isolated and exploited African children, providing long-term
therapy for some young people, attacking MPs for their refusal to
put a cap on the interest rates charged by legal loan sharks, and
so on.

My third wish is that larger voluntaries accept some
responsibility for the plight of small, locally run groups.
£10,000 is small beer to the public relations and fundraising
departments of the giants. It can mean survival to those at the

And finally, that the voluntary organisations with clout should
campaign on the issue of social inequality which is as damaging as
poverty. This might mean criticising government ministers who have
huge incomes in a society where others are on a pittance. It would
mean reforming their own structures so that the deprived have as
many places as the privileged on their managing committees. It is
inequality which is at the root of many of the problems which the
voluntaries attempt to mop up.

Bob Holman has recently retired as community worker at a
locally run project in Easterhouse, Glasgow.

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