Posts Categorized: Third Sector

Think it’s easy to define volunteering? Think again

I think I have found the common thread that unites people who work in volunteering: they love a good debate, but they know it will never lead them to agree.

The topic for discussion at Volunteering England’s AGM earlier this week was ‘Volunteering for profit: is it ever ok?’

John Ramsay, head of volunteering at Age Concern and Help the Aged and a panel member for the debate, acknowledged early on that some people struggled to see the point of it.

When he told his colleagues about the discussion topic, he said, their response was: “Rather than having your esoteric debate, why don’t you come back to the office and do some work?”

At first, I was on his colleagues’ side. Surely the answer is simple: if you do unpaid work for a charity or a community group, it’s volunteering. If you do it for a business, it’s work experience. Why waste time talking about it?

But as it turned out, things got much more complicated. A divide emerged between the stalwarts who thought volunteering should only happen in the voluntary sector, and the movers-with-the-times who had different ideas.

What if, for example, you volunteered as a befriender in a private care home? The job has to be done by a volunteer, because residents appreciate the efforts of someone not paid to be there for them. But the home might make more profit by having befrienders.

And anyway, an audience member pointed out, many charities tender for contracts from local authorities. If having volunteers means a charity wins a contract, and thus expands and starts paying its staff more, aren’t those staff making profit from volunteering?

All sensible points, I was thinking, but why does it matter what ‘counts’ as volunteering and what doesn’t? Justin Davis Smith, Volunteering England’s chief executive, told me some volunteer centres refused to refer volunteers to private sector organisations. And that’s why it mattered.

So it’s a shame, really, that no-one could agree. The closing comment from David Brindle, public services editor at The Guardian and chair of the debate, was telling. “There seem to be a lot of unresolved issues here. Maybe you should sort them out before you start talking to the media.”

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A New Year wish for the social investment bank

So this is Christmas. And with another year over and a new one not yet begun, the pre-Budget report tells of untold riches in dormant accounts to be used to fund a social investment wholesale bank and projects for young people.

The latter will be routed through the Big Lottery Fund. I just hope – I really, really hope – that we’re not going to parcel this up and shovel it out as bog-standard capital and short-term, fixed-life, project-focused revenue grants.

Why? Because the ills of the funding status quo are so deep and well worn that they threaten to see off what Christmas cheer I might start to be feeling.

Let’s remember that the insistence on tying grants almost exclusively to short-term deliverables means that some of society’s most valuable work takes place in profoundly unstable institutions, because charities are over-stretched and under-capitalised.

In our crazy, dystopian status quo, immediate outputs are prioritised over long-term outcomes; funding is insufficiently flexible to respond to changing circumstances; planning horizons are typically limited to one or to three-year cycles: and because key staff are not retained, core knowledge and competence is lost.

Funding follows connections and charisma, not necessarily effectiveness. There is no incentive to outperform, because restricted funds are clawed back in the event of efficiency gains, or leveraging of other income. Demands for unrealistic exit plans concoct the fiction that complex, deep-seated problems can be solved in arbitrary, fixed and short time frames.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

A number of funders have made great strides. The Big Lottery Fund has shown itself pretty adept at smart investment.

So what I really, really want this Christmas is for the Big Lottery Fund to look over the brow of the hill to those folk who’ll be getting excited about the social investment wholesale bank, and think hard about what social investment can teach us all.

In the past decade, a range of agencies, such as Venturesome and The Impetus Trust, have pioneered techniques for social investment. Perhaps too often we’ve focused on loans. For my money, the principle of investing in the underlying and long-term strength of institutions, not just the projects they carry out, is what really counts in social investment.

So when it comes to unclaimed assets, any investment in young people is going to be infinitely stronger if it’s informed by the patient-capital approach of social investment.

Happy Christmas.

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Angela Smith’s breach could kill the Compact

Sir Bert Massie, Commissioner for the Compact, described it as challenging; others might prefer the word tortuous. But the Compact on relations between Government and the Third Sector in England finally completed its slow metamorphosis from a 160-page document to a 22-page one this week.

It was a low-key affair, predictably ignored by the national media and without an event to mark the occasion. This probably came as a relief to third sector minister Angela Smith, whose recent Compact breach might have led to some ticklish questions about the apparent contradiction between her words and deeds.

Smith’s breach has taken the wind out of the Compact, at just the worst time. It may even prove fatal. After all, why should anyone now obey the agreement if the Government department responsible for championing it comes up with the classic excuse for breaking it by saying other things were more important?

The Compact has achieved some spectacular, but very isolated, successes in its 11-year history. But the fact remains it isn’t working.

Richard Corden, chief executive at the Commission for the Compact, says 2010 will be about promoting the Compact in central government and its quangos. He is certainly the man for that job – few people in the voluntary sector understand how Whitehall works better than him.

But if little progress is made over the next six months, will whichever government is in power consider it good value to give the commission another £6m to champion the Compact in its next three-year funding settlement for 2011 to 2014?

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NGOs owe a debt to amateur bloggers

It’s been five years since the Indian Ocean tsunami. Not long, but an age in terms of online developments.

A revolution has occurred between then and now in how NGOs get information to those affected by disasters, and how they report events to the rest of the world.

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You think 2009 was bad?

So that was 2009. A year that began with a rather limp recession action plan and a damning National Audit Office report on the Government’s £446m attempts to strengthen the third sector, ended with the appointment of a new job-sharing, on-loan director-general of the Office of the Third Sector and the worst Compact breach in the agreement’s inglorious 11-year history.

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Do we need a charity sector commentariat?

Hooray, hurrah, huzzah! (Is huzzah a word?) I have been asked to blog. Officially. By a proper, bona fide news magazine. Third Sector no less – doughty organ of civil society and recorder of the slings and arrows that befall our collective sector from time to time. Yet brief flush of pride aside, aren’t there some Troubling Questions About Blogs to be factored first, before I accept?

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Sole trustee arrangements: a recipe for trouble

Public bodies that are sole trustees of charities have cropped up many times in Third Sector and on Thirdsector.co.uk in the past few months. Most recently, the Charity Commission and Department of Health have continued a year-long argument over NHS charities controlled by the hospitals and primary care trusts they are attached to.

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Full marks for Pell & Bales

There was a bit of lull in the rugby between England and Argentina – in fact, the whole thing was a bit of a lull – so I didn’t object too much to taking a call from a charity on a Saturday afternoon. And when the young woman said she was calling from “P&B on behalf of Save the Children”, the antennae twitched a bit: this must be none other than Pell & Bales, who have been on the naughty step a bit recently. Allegations of inappropriate remarks to cancer sufferers, ‘admin’ calls to people who don’t want to be called – you’ve probably read about it in the press. So I listened intently.

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Nude charity calendars: had enough yet?

Another week, another nude charity calendar. Bright young internet entrepreneurs are the latest to strike
coy poses for the London Nude
Tech 2010
to raise cash for education charity Take Heart India.

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