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Acevo do not represent the sector

I don’t blog much. I realised I was doing it to promote myself as a freelance trainer, and felt this was an insincere reason to be doing so. But I really let the pendulum swing too far the other way, so hopefully will be writing the occasional piece more frequently. The reason for today’s is to enable me to lower my blood pressure. I made the dreadful mistake of reading an Acevo press release trumpeting Stephen Bubb’s reaction to the election results.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his reelection. He now has a solid mandate to deliver the real change our society needs.

What is the real change our society needs? Cuts to services seeking to prevent violence against women and girls?  More foodbanks? Workfare? £12bn in welfare cuts? The demonisation of refugees and migrants?

Please, don’t get me wrong, I would be condemning a partisan approach to any party in this context – it seems deeply inappropriate. I would happily criticise such people cosying up to Labour, UKIP or the Greens, not to mention the policies and ideologies of each of them (I was going to add the Lib Dems, but you’d need to find one first). Anyway, this change involves

…accelerating the public service reform agenda to give the poorest in our society real choice and care.

Stephen Stephen Stephen. Neoliberalism is just so 90s, you know? Just to translate the sentence, ‘accelerating the public service reform agenda’ means ‘deeper cuts and more privatisation’. I’d imagine that what the poorest in society want is not so much real choice, more being less poor. Do we really want a choice in which hospital to access, or just a hospital that is well resourced with staff who aren’t demoralised?

Mr Cameron has a mandate to deliver and we expect great things.

Well, the first part of the sentence clearly means “Stop protesting”, a strange attitude for someone in the sector that encompasses campaign groups. God only knows what these ‘great things’ are. Given that last year a Mr S Bubb said the following, one has to wonder where this somewhat bilious bout of panglossianism comes from:

“We are propping up vital services which you could argue should be part of the welfare safety net,” says Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the ACEVO umbrella body for charity chief executives. “That net is being cut and we’re trying to pick up the pieces at a time when it’s incredibly hard for charities to raise money.”

Sir Stephen also warns of a regressive hardening in approaches towards those in need.

“There are Victorian attitudes emerging about the deserving and undeserving poor and I see that in the political discourse,” he says. “I also see worrying signs of the state financially withdrawing from work that they would have readily accepted as their role a decade ago.”

But it seems this was some kind of terrible aberration, as his true feelings appear to be that:

Charities and social enterprises play a hugely important role in delivering high-quality, efficient NHS services, and a policy of enabling whoever is best-placed to deliver could see them do more, to the immense benefit of NHS patients and taxpayers. We need to seize that opportunity, and leave debates about privatisation where they belong – in the last century.

If the market is such a perfect allocative tool it seems reasonable to ask why charities should remain not for profit. If they could make money we could see exactly how well they are doing – the higher the profit the more successful they are, surely¹? And of course, all volunteers would have to be paid – donating your time is so last century.

There is a strange dichotomy at the heart of the Acevo agenda. They want to be both an arm of the state, delivering public services, and on the other hand need to be pro-privatisation and pro-market as an argument to lever this para-state status.

Not so long ago the way that charities arose and operated was by seeing a social need that wasn’t being met. They would say ‘We must do something about X, give us money to do so’ – the money coming from donations, grant making trusts or local/central government grants. Now groups are service providers. They are not identifying social problems and seeking to address them – they are chasing government agendas and competing to run services. You could say that this is just ‘the current climate’, ‘the modern funding landscape’ or so on, but what has been lost (and this is not just a point for Acevo) is any sense that individual charities and the sector as whole should be constantly working to abolish itself.

People did talk about this when I joined the sector – that, say, the ultimate aim for an organisation addressing poverty shouldn’t be to simply ameliorate the worst excesses of people’s exclusion from wealth, but to end poverty altogether. It still gets mentioned, but only as lip service. It’s hard to think of an organisation outside those engaged in medical research that takes seriously the need to challenge the conditions of their own existence.

This sounds utopian, but as Oscar Wilde pointed out progress comes from the achievement of utopias, from seeing the possibility of a better future and setting out to achieve it. When Stephen Bubb imagines the future it probably looks like a permanent birthday party for himself.

One problem with the day to day attitude to Bubb in and out of the sector is that too often it focuses on his character rather than the content of his actions and pronouncements. See for example the admittedly amusing spoof blog or Private Eye’s coverage of him (I was once asked if I were the author of the blog – on truthfully denying this I was met by a shake of the head and the observation that ‘there are so many potential suspects’). He does have issues to answer for personally – there are reasons why he is loathed by NHS campaigners – but this isn’t just about Bubb, it’s his organisation that is the real problem.

It’s not as if I’m against the principle of association – of course voluntary sector bosses have the right to club together to promote their interests, as do stamp collectors and racists. What annoys me is that they claim to speak for the sector – their tagline is The leading voice of the UK’s charity and social enterprise sector. Now, I’m aware that it’s a bit of a play on words, them being leaders and all, but the arrogance is breathtaking. You are not the voice of the sector, you are the representative body of a particular sectional interest². The clue is in your name. To make matters worse, they claim to speak for the sector and then wholeheartedly endorse a political agenda that seems at odds with both the aims and immediate needs of that sector.

One also has to ask why NCVO  don’t have a higher profile. You’d think their remit would be speaking for the sector, yet they seem to lose out to Bubb and Acevo when it comes to being quoted. Are they too timid? This was always a problem with Volunteering England. Having spoken to sector journalists they need a story, and knew that VE wouldn’t be saying too much of interest. I imagine the same thing is going on here – to misquote The Big Lebowski, from the point of view of a journalist, “say what you want about the tenets of Acevo, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

Meanwhile other groups with interesting things to say about the sector – the Association for Volunteer Managers, the National Coalition for Independent Action, NAVCA – go unheard.

¹ I have actually seen this argument being made in the US by an organisation many people may assume is not for profit.

²Actually ‘representative’ would itself be a dubious claim – do their members really support this stance? Of course, it’s possible that given their dwindling membership – that they blame on cuts – that the remainder are those who haven’t borne the brunt of the assault on the sector, or stand to win though the privatising agenda. I find it hard to believe however that chief executives who have been handing out redundancies over the last few years would appreciate the cheerleading for the forces that caused this.




Counting the cuts

I hesitated before posting this – I’m sick of the bad news myself, so don’t really want to be spreading misery. But anyway, there’s a new site crowd-sourcing the impact of local/central government cuts on voluntary organisations. Use it, pass it on – if we can’t stop things we can at least ensure that this assault on the sector doesn’t go down the memory hole:

If the Big Society stories could slow down a little, I’d appreciate it. K thx bai

Events have overtaken me. Every time I’d make some notes for a new blog post a new Big Society story would trump the last one. This wasn’t helped by my increasing anger and need to turn off news items that mentioned or debated the topic.

On those lines I should make a public apology to my flatmates; I did find myself shouting at a debate on ‘Ten o’Clock Live’, particularly at the charity boss they’d found, Shaun Bailey, whose views made more sense when it turned out he’d been a Tory electoral candidate. When I say sense, I meant more in terms of at least you knew why he was saying these things, even if they were awful.

If you can bear it, go to about 34mins into this video. If you don’t have the time (or the patience with Channel 4’s player) here’s a choice quote:

If organised volunteering collapsed tomorrow it wouldn’t make a big deal because private volunteering goes on all the time. Is there anybody here who’s babysat? Do you look after your neighbour’s kids, you kept your sister’s kids while they’ve been ill? You help the woman down the road that’s volunteering, it happens all the time.

We all know that informal volunteering is an intrinsic part of our communities. The idea though that this is what could/should run public services is stunningly ignorant. It would be interesting to know if his charity involves volunteers or not, whether there’s any management or co-ordination of this, and whether they’ve picked up on legal and good practice issues from Volunteering England and Volunteer Centres.

But maybe I’m wrong. Forget organisation, forget volunteer management, we’ve been wasting our time.

Well, the anger levels are rising again, so I’ll put this to one side and carry on with the rest of the blog – the cat gets confused when I start shouting at my computer screen.

Most of the fuss has been about cuts to voluntary sector funding. Quite rightly of course, as it is an absurdity to talk of voluntary action when so many local infrastructure bodies are being not so much cut as eviscerated. Blaming local authorities is laughable. Government spokespeople were so wide eyed and shocked, shocked! that councils drastically reducing budgets would do this that I considered exploiting this naivety – I’d be quids in through emails claiming to be a treasury official in a foreign government looking to transfer a large amount into a handy bank amount. It’s especially hollow given that bodies such as Volunteering England were cut by, er, central government.

Anyway the ball started rolling with Elisabeth Hoodless’ leaving present to the sector. I have to say, it’s not often I’ve agreed with her public pronouncements, but she did us proud this time. The story splashed across the media. Something we all knew in the sector entered the public consciousness.

Mind you she did spoil it a bit – according to the BBC ‘she backed a US idea that ties the funding of public bodies with the number of volunteers recruited’.

Even Volunteering England, which normally finds the fence its most comfortable perch, sounded a critical note. Chief Executive Justin Davis Smith pointed out in the same BBC report that organisations were “having their capacity to deliver, to recruit more, to train, to support their volunteers taken away from them”, although he still supported the ambitions of the Big Society.

Government was prodded a little, and some extra money was announced. The phrase ‘too little, too late’ is well worn, but it’s definitely apt here.

What we’re in danger of missing is that the funding issue, while egregious, is not the central problem with the Big Society idea. For me it’s the very concept of using voluntary action to replace public services.

The key question remains: who will do this? Who will have the time and expertise to run these services? Surely those people with the time and inclination are broadly already volunteering. Will such projects end up merely poaching volunteers from local Age Concerns, advocacy services, befriending projects?

Whether by design or happenstance, or perhaps design, the plan amounts to a new form of privatisation.

Firstly it’s a way of expanding market principles further into the social sphere. This is an issue I have always had with some forms of social enterprises. There does seem to be an ideological kernel behind the concept (supported as much by the Labour Party as the Conservatives) – there may not be private profit, but the idea of market discipline is central.

Will volunteer effort be used to undercut other potential suppliers? Where does this leave volunteers? Where does this leave people in what are already low paid precarious jobs?

Secondly, where local services run by volunteers fail to deliver, I can’t believe they’ll be brought back under the public sector. The government’s reaction will be, well, we tried that, valiant effort there by the plucky community groups, but time for the big boys to come in. Private companies like Serco will be circling like hawks.

I don’t think I’m being that cynical to say that it makes this agenda sound so much nicer to talk of community groups running services than the private sector.

And to back up the last point, just as I was putting this post together I saw this story on the BBC website:

David Cameron: End state monopoly over public services

David Cameron has said the government will set out plans to allow private and voluntary groups to run almost every kind of public service

It won’t come as much of a surprise to the more forensic reader, but I don’t support the ambitions of the Big Society.

Volunteering needs support

I had a recent conversation with someone with a degree of influence in a local area that stopped me in my tracks. This person didn’t see the point of volunteer centres.  Given that we were talking about increasing the quantity and quality of volunteering I was a little lost for words.

So much is expected of volunteering these days.  It’s meant to help with social cohesiveness, employability, crime, health, regeneration and just about every local or national government agenda you can name.  However no one with any clout seems to understand that this doesn’t all magically happen out of thin air.   Elsewhere I’ve talked about the importance of volunteer management, but volunteer management needs support too.   Volunteer centres provide locally delivered guidance, facilitate peer learning and support, help develop local programmes (how much supported volunteering would be going on without VCs to drive it?), not to mention campaigning and promotion.

One of the biggest problems VCs face is that their brokerage function is grossly misunderstood.  Realistically they’re not going to ever place more than say 5% of the volunteers in their area, and as they’re seen by some as simply being recruitment agencies this can look like a failure.  Well, firstly as I said above VCs do a lot more than recruit volunteers.  Secondly, the people they do place are exactly the people who do need more support.  They’re people unsure about where to volunteer and in what capacity.  They’re people who lack confidence.  They’re people new to the area or the country who do not have the links/knowledge to find voluntary work directly.  They’re people with additional support needs of some kind.

It was noticeable that the Commission on the Future of Volunteering didn’t have much to say on Volunteer Centres, and what it did was ignored by government.  This seems symptomatic of a long term failure at that political level to appreciate the need for local support for volunteering.

Unfortunately our Volunteering Champion doesn’t seem to understand this either, else she’d be spending every breath shouting for adequate funding for volunteer centres.

I should say here that I no longer have a particular axe to grind.  When I was working for Volunteering England you could argue that I’d just be saying this kind of thing because I was part of the VC infrastructure.  I’m not anymore, and on top of that I’ve never had any illusions about the quality of some Volunteer Centres.  However, the poorer examples I’ve seen have generally been that way because they are underfunded, not because the VC model is flawed.  It’s clear from my blog posts that I have the bitter heart of a true cynic, yet I am always impressed and inspired by the work carried out by VCs.

We can all go on about how great volunteering is.  How vital it is to our society and to individuals.  But this talk is meaningless if there’s no material support for volunteer engagement, and if people holding the purse strings just expect it all to happen through cosmic serendipity.

What part of ‘voluntary’ is so hard to grasp?

Gordon Brown has come out with yet another statement on compulsory community service for young people.  Ok, to be fair, he didn’t use the ‘V’ word, but of course subsequent reporting is full of it.  If Labour win the next election young people must clock up 50 hours of community service by the age of 19.

The focus on youth volunteering is hard to understand.  After all, young people regularly volunteer more than any other age group (according to the Helping Out national survey).  I really don’t understand what is to be gained by forcing young people into community service, other than some approving Daily Mail headlines.

The plan basically relies upon giving voluntary organisations and volunteer managers in particular a policing role.  Why should groups have to deal with young people who do not want to be there?  It will place volunteer managers (because it’s VMs who will be expected to manage these schemes) in an antagonistic role – montoring attendance and the quality of their charges’ work.

One wonders what will actually separate those carrying out ‘community service’ from people carrying out ‘community payback’ sentences.  Perhaps the ‘vests of shame’ will be in a different colour.  That way we’ll know to boo and hiss the right ones.

What are these young people going to do?  These kind of schemes rely on the idea that there is an infinite amount of work waiting to be carried out.  This is simply not the case, as the volunteer management capacity survey suggested..  Or at least isn’t if paid jobs aren’t going to be displaced.  What about people from other age groups who want to volunteer?  Are they going to find it difficult to get involved because most roles are going to pressganged youth?

Presumably what is to be considered community service will be within strict boundaries.  However,  the young people at the G20 climate camp were fulfilling an active citizenship role.  Why shouldn’t those hours be taken into account?

I can’t believe that this scheme will not meet resistance, both on an organised basis and informally.  There is no way I’d have willingly submitted to such a scheme  when I was young – I’m just old enough to have not paid my Poll Tax, and I would have resented this form of state compulsion just as much.  If popular opposition develops, which side will the volunteering infrastructure find itself on?

Brown cites Martin Luther King , who “once said that everyone could be great because everyone can serve”.   However in spuriously bringing in MLK he is missing the obvious point that serving others only carries moral weight when it is a free choice.  If you are going to quote King, there are quotations that are a little meatier and more apt to the current climate:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you beging to ask that question, you are riasing questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that [radical] questions must be raised…..’Who owns the oil’…’Who owns the iron ore?’…’Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’

Volunteering in private companies

This is a topic that I’ve had a couple of conversations about recently, sparked I think by comments from our Volunteering Champion, and a general confusion about what is volunteering and what is work experience.

Call me an old stick in the mud, but I cannot agree that involving volunteers in private companies is a good thing.  Where someone is making a private profit (as an owner or shareholder) I can’t see how volunteer involvement is anything other than exploitation.

The waters are muddied by the increased privatisation of public services.  Should users of such services miss out on the added value that volunteers bring?  I’d argue that such services should be paid for by the private company contracting voluntary sector groups, and that this element of care must be considered as part of any commissioning arrangement.

Part of the problem here is that we haven’t had a strong pro-volunteering voice able to affect local and national government agendas on such issues.  It would be great to feel confident that there was an organisation out there championing the cause of volunteering, even if that meant putting the volunteering champion’s nose out of joint occasionally.

I realise that many people will just write me off as some antiquated fossil who should just get with the times Daddy-O, but there are practical issues too.

People on benefits cannot volunteer in private companies.  Nor can asylum seekers.    That’s the current legal position, and I can’t see it changing for either status.

Government advice on work placements in private companies states that such unpaid help should be time limited – ideally to two weeks but no more than four.

I’ll sneak something more controversial in at the end.  I’m not entirely convinced that some social enterprises should be involving volunteers, even though their profits are not going into private hands.

Social enterprise covers a wide range of organisations.  I guess I’m particularly referring to those that are set up with an explicitly market driven model.  This seems like having your cake and eating it to me.  If the market is such a wonderful way of doing things, shouldn’t the workers be paid their market rate?  And isn’t this giving an uncompetitive advantage over other private companies not involving unpaid labour?


For a moment I was wondering whether Third Sector was proposing a second April Fools Day – It was the 1st October, 6 months to the day after the eponymous let-hilarity-ensue festival of mirth.  But no, it was a true story.

Youth volunteering charity v has decided that the fusty old term volunteering isn’t ‘with it’ enough, so are attempting to substitute ‘favours’ instead.  The Third Sector story is here, though you may need to register (free) to see it.  V’s home page reflects this new orientation too.

It’s a classic ploy if you think you’re selling a dud.  Windscale became Sellafield, BP changed their logo to an abstract sun/flower hybrid, illegal wars became police actions.  I remember the day that I went from being unemployed to being a ‘jobseeker’.  Apart from my UB40 being replaced with a fancier model, I didn’t feel much different.

But do v have so little faith in the product they’re selling?

I can see using different terminology for informal volunteering – encouraging people to ‘help out’ perhaps – but for formal volunteering?  Most volunteer involving organisations do not want ‘favours’, they want someone to come in on a regular basis to carry out defined tasks.

The irony is, according to the Helping Out survey, 16-24 year olds are more likely than any other age group to be regular formal volunteers.  Occasional or one off volunteering is lower, but the commitment shown by regular volunteers suggests that whatever the perceptions of ‘geekiness’, they’re not that strong a deterrent.

Having outed myself as not being a ‘youth’ with the reference to unemployment and UB40s maybe I’m hopelessly out of date.  But I think it’s both patronising and underestimating young people to avoid calling something by its name.