The voluntary sector must take its share of the blame

I recently predicted that 2011 would be a ‘bloodbath’ for the sector.

Perhaps unsurprisingly my comments attracted a mixed reaction. Some praised my honesty but I was also accused of scaremongering and being unduly pessimistic. I want to explain why I stand by that view but why I remain optimistic about the future…

I think everyone agrees that this year is going to be painful and challenging for the voluntary and community sector. Government ministers have talked of ‘necessary pain’.

2011 is going to be a tough year. At Urban Forum we receive a steady trickle of news of job losses and closures; NAVCA are losing half their staff, DTA’s and bassac’s merger will see a similar proportion of jobs go and BURA has already been wound up.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Many redundancies and closures go unreported, hidden from all but the local press.

I am not suggesting the VCS should be immune from spending cuts (if public spending is being cut so quickly and so dramatically – which I think is a matter of some debate). I happen to believe that there are actually too many charities duplicating work and competing where they should be collaborating.

Over recent years huge amounts of public money have flowed into the sector and I do not believe we can honestly say that this has delivered lasting benefit for society’s most disadvantaged.

We must take responsibility for the fact that, as a sector, we have failed to maximise the benefit of that investment. There are numerous reasons for this, some to do with the ever-moving goalposts and command and control approach of the last government.

But some of the failure is ours. We could have done more. We should have done more. And now we must adapt without the benefit of major public investment to do so. But adapt we must.

There is much we can do to improve our efficiency and effectiveness in the sector but this is not necessarily gained through mergers and consolidation, with an ever diminishing number of ever larger charities. Nonetheless, I do believe that we could reduce the number of charities without adversely affecting the benefit to the most marginalised in society.

But (and it’s a very big but!) I have no confidence that which organisations survive will depend upon how well they serve their beneficiaries. Sadly, I suspect that many organisations more concerned with marketing and managing their public image will fare better than those concerned only with serving their beneficiaries.

I think many fantastic organisations will cease to exist and many deeply committed and talented staff will lose their jobs. Even if, as I want to believe, Big Society and localism does create new opportunities for us, they are still some way off.

Spending cuts are happening immediately and their pain will be instantly felt, particularly this year since the cuts are ‘front loaded’.

New opportunities such as the localism bill’s ‘Community Rights’ will not be implemented until November at the earliest. Reforming public services will take many years to be fully realised. By that time swathes of the sector will have perished.

Despite this, I remain optimistic about the future. The resilience and strength of community groups never fails to amaze and inspire me.

Communities, even those too readily written off as ‘failing’, have an incredible capacity to bounce back from shock and crisis. And I am confident the community sector will innovate and adapt in the face of adversity.

I hope that by 2012 we start to see the green shoots of recovery but before then I anticipate a great deal of pain.


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