Community leaders must offer hope, not gloom
February 1, 2016
The last few years have been deeply challenging for almost all of the voluntary and community sector (VCS), especially small community-based groups and their local infrastructure bodies.
We also know that the next few years will be even more challenging as public expenditure cuts and the government’s welfare reforms bite ever deeper. Local authority expenditure will be hit harder than most, and, given that local government is a major source of VCS funding, this is disastrous news for the sector and its leaders.
To summarise: grants are being removed or severely reduced; contracts are being squeezed and let with ridiculously low fees; and concurrently, demand for VCS services is increasing in no small part as a consequence of public service cuts and the welfare changes.
So, it is all too tempting for sector executive and trustee leaders, at both the local and national level, to fall into what could inevitably become a self-fulfilling state of despair and defeatism.
‘VCS leaders need to rekindle their energy, their bold imaginative vision,
and the resolve that has been at heart of the sector for centuries’
It is also far too easy and tempting to romanticise about some ‘golden era’ in the past, or worse still, to keep thinking that over the next few years such an era and its associated conditions will or could be resurrected. There have been much better periods but few were perfect, and even the best probably don’t match current social and economic circumstances, and most certainly do not fit the current government’s political ideology.
I do find it interesting that ministers hardly ever now speak of the Big Society. Of course, they continue to take swipes at those VCS organisations that challenge its approach, who speak up for those most disadvantaged by central government’s actions – and yet continue to raise the idea of volunteers replacing state provision.
So what to do?
Candidly, regardless of prevailing political, social, economic or environmental conditions, I am clear and resolute that VCS leaders at local and national level have to offer ‘hope’ to beneficiaries, volunteers and staff. This must be a given.
Of course, as in every sector – public, business, social or VCS – it is imprudent and unhelpful to offer false hope and raise unrealistic expectations. However, I too often hear VCS colleagues speaking as if Armageddon is just around the corner and that they/we are all doomed.
Too much time and effort expended on being pessimistic and downbeat can become both self-fulfilling and self-indulgent in equal destructive measure, and little wonder that staff and volunteers become dispirited.
Enough. Sector leaders, whether exhausted, stuck in a cynical mind-set or indulging themselves in this way should change their attitudes or step aside.
Innovation, optimism and a sense of purpose is essential in a period of uncertainty and challenge. In the contemporary VCS, I come across too many pessimists and too few optimists. To be blunt – pessimists do not good leaders make!
Naturally, anyone in the VCS who is starry-eyed in their optimism should be questioned, if not challenged, given that the position for many organisations and their beneficiaries is bleak. Sector leaders have to support these organisations and argue their case with public bodies and others. They also have to encourage and help them to change and develop alternative strategies which put the interests of their beneficiaries first (remember, these organisations exist not for the benefit of trustees, and staff, but beneficiaries), and ahead of their institutional ones – offering not just the chance of survival but also renewal.
My view is that what is going to be required as never before, is strong, focused values-driven leadership across the VCS, locally and nationally; which has direct and honest dialogue with and listens to beneficiaries and other stakeholders; is willing to change and take considered risks; and is not precious about organisational structures or personal position.
VCS leaders need to rekindle their energy, their bold imaginative vision and ambitions, and the resolve that has been at heart of the sector for centuries. The latter has delivered much social progress and enabled millions of people and communities to secure enhanced opportunities. Those leaders unable to do so should resign, retire, or get out of the way – and this applies as much to chairs and trustees as to executive leaders and managers. Those whom the VCS serves (and those who work for it) deserve more than inaction and negativity.
I challenge the sector to adopt a new resolve to move forward so as to offer hope – not despondency.