As published in the News section on this website, the VANL AGM 2015 included a debate on “Volunteering and the Voluntary Sector – Cheap Substitute or valued alternative?”. The following is Carole Phillips’ introduction to the debate.


It has fallen to me to set the scene for this debate and I am going to try and achieve that in a balanced way – but no promises!!!

The thinking behind this theme came from a comment made to us by a senior decision maker from a public sector organisation in relation to a discussion on volunteers and the role of volunteering in society.

The perfectly honest and open observation was that more of the services that have been to date delivered by paid workers will need to be provided by volunteers.

Conversely, the Volunteer Centre have noticed that it is becoming increasingly hard to find opportunities for would be volunteers as the capacity of the voluntary and public sector organisations reduces and there is no-one to train and manage volunteers.

In addition, employability organisations are placing people in roles traditionally performed by volunteers.

A further facet of the debate is around the ‘un-sung heroes’ in all of our communities and across the globe, working to reduce poverty, disadvantage and inequality without being driven, or often supported by any government agenda.

This is the essence of volunteering and the voluntary sector! People coming together in collective action to meet an identified need.

This part of the sector needs to be able to rely on support as and when they need it! Like the unsung heroes, in our film, they deserve it!

However, it is often suggested that voluntary sector should become more like either public sector or the private sector! In relation to the public sector it is increasingly about delivering services defined and commissioned by that agency; as public sector funding is suffering from unprecedented reductions and constraints. The commissioning of such services is often through competitive tender ‘to drive prices down’.

As we move into delivering services on behalf of the statutory sector, do we run the risk of eroding the difference factor the sector brings? Like Its closeness to the service user, its focus on meeting the needs as defined by that person, the filling of gaps and making of links – responding to situations like Dorothy’s story and in a person centred way – in essence the spontaneity and flexibility.

When we are advised we need to be more like the private sector, I assume this means we need to be independent from public sector grant funding, by perhaps charging for services and creating a surplus to sustain the organisation into the future, as the private sector operates.

This depends on the end user paying or the commissioner accepting the need for creating surplus. If I am honest I can’t see this being realistic, as the sector tends to work with the most disadvantaged people.

The question I believe we need to concern ourselves with as a sector and commissioners; is what will we lose if we follow either of these models, as well as what do we gain? Is there room for a mixed social economy?

Is there a fundamental conflict in providing person centred, quality services and creation of surplus when competing for public sector contracts? Particularly when the lowest cost is the principle deciding factor!

Is there is a 3rd way in which the commissioner, the service users and the voluntary sector co-design partnership activity, which has been a preferred model in the past when we need to find new ways of working in service areas where the voluntary sector has an important role to play. This is more than market shaping or requests for information, it about making more of the different strengths and values of the sectors and creating something that hits the mark for all stakeholders in an innovative and cost effective way.

A further point commonly raised is the inconsistency in quality and effectiveness in different voluntary organisations. Is this something we need to question ourselves about?

However there is a debate to be had about whose assessment of quality, is that the Commissioner, the service recipient, the community? And what is that assessment based on?

Is there an over focus on some aspects of service delivery, resulting in a loss of recognition of the multiple outcomes and wider value the sector has? NHS VCSE review refers to it as an ‘atmosphere of diminishing trust’. Or is this a mechanism for preventing drifting off of contracted service delivery in favour of ‘what the organisation does’?

Finally has a move from grants to open competitive procurement disproportionally impacted on smaller often local voluntary organisations – is it really an equal playing field when it comes to tendering?

This final point raises questions close to my heart as it is this part of the sector that organisations like VANL are focused on – because of their unique role, focusing on the needs and aspirations of the people of North Lincolnshire and as Stuart Etherington – Chief Executive of NCVO – said within his very recent speech at the Big Assist Beacons launch ‘Infrastructure organisations are a vital part of a unique but fragile voluntary sector ecosystem, that has more than proved its worth in the past.

VANL has been awarded Big Assist Beacon status, as we have demonstrated that we have the desire and ability to do things differently in response to the very different socio-economic conditions in our society today.

However there is a very real threat as local public sector agencies and national voluntary sector funding sources pull back from funding what is commonly termed infrastructure support for the voluntary sector.

The voluntary sector without infrastructure support was described to me as ‘like trying to land a plane without air traffic control’

I will finish with quotes from Stuart Etherington’s speech:

‘It is about time the ‘spotlight was shone on the vital work infrastructure organisations do. They are the ones in the boiler rooms at the back, powering the best voluntary sector to be found anywhere in the world today, and creating new partnerships that are capable of transforming the life chances of our communities.’

He went on to say:

‘The small- and medium-sized organisations that are their core customers need help to balance their own books, while continuing to support communities facing major reforms to public services and welfare.

He said in relation to the changed landscape we all exist within ‘The pressures of today mean we must all be willing to work in closer partnership with one another, as well as with government and funders. It is only by so doing that we will ensure the potential of the voluntary sector ecosystem is both preserved and realized for future generations.

I think I can safely say on behalf of the staff, our volunteers and the Board – ‘bring it on’ we are ready and willing!