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Is David Cameron about to shelve the ‘big society’?

Headless chickens come to mind as we watch Labour and Conservatives running around in search of the best way to neutralise the Clegg effect. It’s brought the election alive in a slightly disturbing way – might we actually end up with something daring, like scrapping Trident or joining the Euro?

Of special interest to the voluntary sector is that David Cameron has not reached for his ‘big society’ idea as his party looks desperately for a way to revive its fortunes. Quite the opposite, if a story in yesterday’s Guardian is to be believed. It seems that the idea is being quietly pushed into the background.

Some of the remarks from unnamed shadow cabinet ministers are quite savage. “The ‘big society’ is bollocks,” one was quoted as saying. Another attributed the idea to manifesto supremo Oliver Letwin and commented: “We need to turn his Hegelian dialectic into voter friendly stuff.”

The ‘big society’ is a nice ideal – a society where we all care and share and participate. But it will always be seen by some as an unrealistic pipe dream, and by others as an elaborate fig leaf for ‘same old Tories, same old cuts.’ One things seems crystal clear: it’s not much of a vote winner in the current state of play.

What happened to the big splash on the Compact?

2010 was supposed to be the year of the big push for the Compact. “Next year is an important time to make a big splash,” said Richard Corden, chief executive of the Commission for the Compact, when the cross-sector fair play agreement was refreshed in December.

At the time, the Compact was still reeling from the breach by third sector minister Angela Smith and criticism that the new version didn’t cater for the needs of community groups and black and minority ethnic groups.

Corden said the new document should learn from the mistakes of the old version and be promoted better. But four months on, where is the noise?

The Compact advocacy programme at the NCVO used to publish an annual report saying how many cases it had investigated with details of some of the issues. It wasn’t afraid to shame the government department that committed serial breaches – or to pat on the back the good ones.

Since its feisty manager Saskia Daggett departed it has adopted a low-key, softly-softly approach to its work and this week told Third Sector it would not be producing an annual report in 2010.

Compact Voice, which represents the voluntary sector on Compact issues, has some examples of good practice on its website; the commission has sponsored some interesting thematic work. But nothing much has happened to generate news or create a sense that the Compact matters.

The emphasis seems to be on handling disputes quietly while making bland public utterings about the value of a strong Compact. This is barely creating a ripple, let alone a splash and if the situation remains then it’s likely that by the next election Third Sector will still have to explain what the Compact is to every public sector press officer and little progress will have been made.

Let the charity tribunal deal with disgruntled volunteers

Hardly a week seems to go by at Third Sector without us being contacted by some disgruntled volunteer or trustee. The story always runs along similar lines: the volunteers feel they have been badly treated by their charities but have been unable to find any redress other than going to the media. Invariably they have complained to the Charity Commission only to be told that the regulator does not involve itself in internal disputes.

Just this year I have reported on four such cases, involving the National Coastwatch Institute, Uxbridge United Welfare Trusts, the Pituitary Foundation and Melton Mowbray Town Estate. Many of the volunteers involved have been deeply affected by the way they feel their goodwill and passion for the charity’s cause has been thrown back in their face.

There have been calls for a volunteers’ ombudsman for several years but nothing has come of it. Volunteering England launched an inquiry into volunteers’ lack of rights last November, but it has been given a six-month extension because the issue is bigger than the organisation had initially realised.

The disgruntled volunteers who contact Third Sector are all united in the belief that volunteers need something akin to employment rights to protect them from being bullied or summarily dismissed. And with all the emphasis political parties are currently putting on volunteering as a means of strengthening society, surely safeguards must be established to prevent the volunteering experience from embittering people.

Clearly this would require legislation, but it strikes me that we have a charity tribunal sitting around with nothing much to do and an endless queue of volunteers all crying out for a taste of justice. Surely whichever party wins the election ought to do the decent thing and put the two together?

The Charity Commission’s guidance on political campaigning is proving a weak deterrent

The pre-election warning to charities by the Charity Commission chief executive Andrew Hind, telling them “not to engage in any party political activity or leave the charity open to the perception that they might be”, looks like one of those police clampdowns on cyclists riding on pavements: more request than threat.

It was always going to be difficult for the regulator to monitor comments by 180,000 organisations and hardly a day has passed without at least one charity endorsing or criticising a particular party.

But for sheer effrontery, the comments of Atlantic Bridge this week take some beating.

The charity is already under investigation for links to the Conservative Party, but this didn’t prevent Amanda Bowman, chief executive of its American arm, saying that David Cameron would be “much more amenable to shared US-UK foreign interests than Gordon Brown” and better for the special relationship.

Bowman then emailed Third Sector a statement, perhaps because she wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face talking directly to us, saying her comments were ìnot intended as an endorsement of David Cameron, but rather as speculation that this relationship will hopefully be revitalised if the Tories win the general electionî.

This is a charity founded by shadow defence charity Liam Fox, who remains a trustee, and whose advisory council includes seven Tory MPs and a Tory peer. Margaret Thatcher is an honorary patron.

Bowman could hardly have nailed the charity’s political colours to the mast more clearly if she had stuck two fingers up to Gordon Brown while wearing a blue rosette and singing Land of Hope and Glory.

The commission won’t say how many complaints it has received about party politics. It claims the information is too hard to collate. All Atlantic Bridge can expect is advice and guidance after the election is over. The commission’s wrath looks a poor deterrent to political point scoring.

If you are offered a defined benefit pension, grab it

What would you say if I told you that there are thousands of charity employees out there who could boost by 20 per cent the amount given to them by their employer, without changing job or incurring any risk at all, but are choosing not to?

You might doubt it, but it’s true. They’re the people who are entitled to join their charities’ defined benefit pension schemes, but haven’t.

These are schemes where the company guarantees what level of pension an employee will receive in retirement, usually a proportion of their final salary. They are incredibly generous schemes and they’re rare in most sectors, but unusually common in the third sector.

Most employees who opt out do so because they would have to make some contributions themselves, and no one likes to give up cash now to pay for their old age. But they’re missing out on a good deal for the future. Often, a £1,000 contribution from the employee will bring several thousands from the employer for their later life.

What’s bad news for them, though, is probably good news for the thousands of third sector organisations in multi-employer defined benefit schemes.

These are schemes where several employers have grouped together to offer the same benefits. Charities can be members of public sector schemes, those offered by larger charities, or group schemes such as those run by the Pensions Trust.

Many members of these schemes admit they simply could not afford their pension obligations if every employee took up their right to have a pension.

Many charities joined these schemes years ago, often because they took on public sector staff who already had defined benefit pensions. Often they looked like a good idea, but history has proved otherwise.

These schemes have turned out to be terrible ideas for many reasons, but mostly because people are living longer, which means their employers have to pay for longer to keep them in their old age.

As life expectancy lengthens and lengthens again, the cost of these schemes rises every few years. And because these schemes contain many employers, each one individually has little control over what they pay. So why not leave?

The truth is that it’s very difficult to get out. Most charities are well behind on their payments, and leaving a scheme usually involves making good all your debts – and paying a hefty premium on them.

The really worrying thing is that many charities have no idea about the trouble they are in, and may easily find they have a huge debt they do not know about.

Several times, when the final employee in the scheme leaves the organisation, a charity has found it must cough up a huge amount of cash – possibly a year’s income.

There are few good answers to the problem. The best actuaries can say is that you need to manage your risks as best you can, get out if you are able, and think very carefully before you take on any public sector contracts which involve taking on staff.

If you are an employee, on the other hand, and your employer offers you a defined benefit scheme, it’s probably a good idea to grab it with both hands.

London Marathon needs a human face

Many Third Sector readers will be familiar with the terrain covered by the Dispatches programme on the London Marathon at the weekend: the intense feelings of unfairness among some charities about the Gold Bond system of allocating places for runners; the deep reluctance of the marathon’s leaders to talk openly about its organisation and finances; and their hostile response to any kind of questioning or criticism.

The Marathon’s refusal to come out and explain how it spends the money only leaves the impression that it has something to hide. If it had been open about things, including the pay of the senior staff, much of the wind would probably have been taken out of the programme’s sails. Instead it behaved as if nobody has any right to ask questions about the Marathon because it has raised a lot of money for charity.

The Marathon has been a huge success in many ways, but its rigid formula and attitudes are ripe for review. It needs more flexibility and a greater willingness to listen and respond. It needs more skilful public relations and a more human face. Even without change, it will no doubt continue to be successful. If it did change, it could probably do even better.

David Cameron’s National Citizen Service is likely to interest only middle class and motivated teens

Volunteering was at the top of the political agenda for a brief moment yesterday, when David Cameron used his first major press conference since the beginning of the general election campaign to announce his party’s plans for a National Citizen Service scheme.

Under his system, 16-year-olds would be encouraged to spend the summer after they leave school doing a residential volunteering placement and some extra volunteering hours in their local communities. Charities, social enterprises and private firms would apply to the Government to become providers of the placements.

There will inevitably be practical concerns about all of this: would the process of applying to run the scheme leave charities competing against private sector firms? And would businesses use the opportunity to source free labour to cover staff holiday?

But there’s a bigger question here, about the ways in which politicians use volunteering to meet their social aims.

The type of volunteering Cameron is planning sounds remarkably similar to Labour’s community service scheme for 14 to 16-year olds, being run by volunteering charity v. The main difference, it seems, is that pupils at schools running Labour’s project have no choice but to volunteer.

The Tories’ plan is optional, and therefore likely to attract the type of teenagers that are already drawn to volunteering. They’re motivated and enthusiastic, and can afford to spend time volunteering rather than taking on paid work in their summer holidays. And they already do the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Cathedral Camps.

Nobody likes the phrase “compulsory volunteering” and there are serious doubts that it would work – Cameron admits that he had wanted to make national citizen service compulsory, but changed his mind on the advice of youth groups.

But if the Tories win the election, and want volunteering to be a social leveller, they’ll have to find a real incentive for people from less privileged backgrounds to get involved. It could be cash; it could be the guarantee of a job interview.

But their current plan, which Cameron describes as making the scheme “of such high quality and great benefit that everyone will want to take part,” is not enough.

Because It’s Good is rather good for charities looking for digital media tips

Should charities tackle malicious groups created by Facebook users? How do online mentors keep professional boundaries in place? And are elaborate email templates worth the effort?

Such digital media quandaries are tackled in a series of articles on Because It’s Good, a newish community blog that functions as an online salon for charity digital media geeks. The idea is to allow experts to share clever thinking on emerging trends, and it’s free to join and contribute to. Surely there must be a catch?

Well, perhaps not. True – the site is hosted by digital agency Enable Interactive – it’s upfront about that – but account director Nick Torday is keen to bat off suggestions that the site is a cynical commercial exercise. It is, he says, a spirited attempt to allow charities to simply share their critical insight.

It’s an idea that certainly chimes with current thinking on how “free” can be a business model for charity suppliers and just about any other commercial enterprise. Academic and blogger Jeff Jarvis argues in his influential book What Would Google Do? that the businesses best placed to survive the digital revolution will be those that offer free online tools to clients and potential clients. They won’t necessarily expect anything in return, or even to secure any business.

Charities should make the most of Because It’s Good. There are some intelligent and absorbing bits of bite-sized wisdom and some interesting debate here. Would-be members can sign up, create a profile, then either just stick to reading articles or, if they like, write the odd piece. The site promises to publish at least two new articles a week.

Another scalp for Joanna Lumley

It might well be that some former Gurkhas have exercised their right to come to Britain and arrived with unrealistic expectations about housing and subsistence; it might well be that, in Nepal, unscrupulous fixers and middlemen have been exploiting the credulity of some former soldiers. These are all matters that need to be examined and addressed.

But the attempt by the junior defence minister Kevan Jones to imply that problems such as these were in some way caused by, and were now being neglected by, Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha Justice Campaign, was a step too far. There is a distinction between winning residence rights and what might happen when those rights are exercised. And yesterday the minister, clearly under orders from on high and stumbling over his words, issued an apology. It was the second and possibly the last time he will attract public attention.

For some weeks Lumley has stayed quiet about the minister’s remarks and the newspaper stories that have followed, but yesterday she too spoke out against what she called the slurs against her and the campaign. It was a calm and articulate statement that gave the lie to suggestions that she is just a celebrity front person. Once again it was clear that she is an astute campaigner and tactician, which is why sector chief executives voted her in as charity champion in third Sector’s recent Britain’s Most Admired Charities Awards.

For campaigning organisations in the third sector generally, the story has a heartening message. If you have a good cause, and you marshal popular support and get your tactics right, ministers have little option but to bend.

Jones tried to hit back and take Lumley down a peg or two, but the attempt backfired. His is now the third ministerial scalp hanging metaphoricially from her belt, alongside those of the immigration minister, Phil Woolas, and the Prime Minister himself.

Gravity could make virtual chugging a reality

Gravity is a new social networking site that could prove extremely useful for charity campaigning and fundraising. A number of charities and sector organisations, such as Whizz-Kidz and UK Fundraising, are already there.

The site allows users to start conversations on any subject, and to “orbit worlds” and one another based around their interests, rather than following feeds. If you can get past the jargon it’s a bit like working a virtual room – you drift around from conversation to conversation, introducing yourself to interesting people and like-minded enthusiasts, dipping in and out, taking and giving bits of information. As Rob Dyson, PR manager at Wizz-Kidz reports on his blog, it’s a little addictive.

There is a lot of potential here for charities with stories to tell; unlike Twitter, there’s no limit to the number of characters users can type into a post, so charities could throw open discussions about their causes with people who care enough to make the effort to join in. And it’s tempting to futuregaze: Gravity makes virtual chugging seem possible and realistic.

For those struggling to keep up with content on Twitter, Buzz, Facebook and the rest, the urge to dismiss Gravity as one more thing to worry about must be compelling. But, as TechCrunch reports, the site has a lot of investment behind it. It’s been set up by former MySpace executives and other experts (or “engineering ninjas, product gurus, and business futurists”, as they describe themselves), and it is aiming high.

There aren’t many Gravity users because so far access has been by invitiation only, so be warned: it feels a bit like arriving early at a party. But this week the site began offering public invitations, which means anyone can request to join so it could start to get busy. It might be worth staking a claim now.