NCVO conference- Stuart Etherington’s state of the sector

At the NCVO conference Stuart Etherington, Chief Exec of NCVO has just given his keynote talk on the ‘State of the Sector’.

I’m not sure how far his opening call that we should not be ‘blighted by fear’ resonated in the room.  While acknowledging and addressing the short-term challenges, we were encouraged to stop worrying about what the Big Society is and get on a do it.

Anyway, here’s some immediate highlights:

Around £13 billion of the sectors’ £35bn income comes from the state: so one argument put is that the sector has become overly dependent on the state, and that cutting funding will be A Good Thing by giving the voluntary sector it’s independence.  Stuart’s counter is that three-quarters of public funding is in the form of contracts – so in fact the state is dependent on the sector.

Stuart summarised the Big Society as

  1. the transformation of public services
  2. devolution of power
  3. voluntary and community action

and outlined his calls to Government to support these, including:

  • The sector has great strengths (longer-term outcomes focus; innovative; close to the ground) but also weaknesses in a commissioning world – lack of financial strength (of reserves, access to capital etc).  NCVO are asking government to look at tax policy (which apparently disadvantages the sector), and ‘social clauses’ in contracts that recognise and reward ‘social value’.
  • The aims of the Localisation Bill are right; the detail is all important.  Government needs to ensure that the ‘right to bid’ doesn’t disadvantage the voluntary sector over the private.
  • Local Authorities need to produce guidelines for Local Authorities to ensure power devolves beyond the Authority and down to communities.
  • The importance of campaigning by charities – some MPs dispute this.  But it’s essential if power is to pass down to local communities.
  • Need to look at new ways to encourage individual giving – it’s high, but plateauing.
  • We’ll all need to look again at consortia, partnerships and mergers.

For what they’re worth, some of my initial thoughts:

  • Fear and anxiety can be rather crippling.  ‘Calls to arms’ are not pointless but it’s going to take more.
  • Do charities depend on the state or the state on charities?  Of course it’s both; there is mutual dependence, but the balance of power (as almost always) is with the state as customer.
  • Social clauses rewarding social value: if it’s in a contract, it’s surely got to be measurable and measured.  Which is possible, but will need some standardisation.
  • I think there’s still too much talk of ‘benefiting organisations’, rather than ‘benefiting people’.  If that message gets muddled then calls to government do look like special pleading; if the focus remains on people and changing lives it doesn’t.