Forty years of bumpy road
by Barry Knight
This article is based on a talk to the Voluntary Action History Society on 10 June 2019.
Arthur Marwick said that a society without an understanding of its history is akin to a man without memory.(1) It seems particularly important in the field of voluntary action because memories appear short, people fade quickly from view once they have left the scene, and the best that anyone can hope for is to end up as a footnote. My impression is that the history of voluntary action is not widely understood.
In this paper I will consider the main milestones for the UK voluntary sector during the past 40 years: from the publication of the Wolfenden Committee report in 1978 through to the Deakin report of 1996 and the 2018 Unwin report. I will also reflect on my own career in the UK voluntary sector, including my part in producing one of the greatest shocks the sector has ever had. In 1993, my much abused CENTRIS report Voluntary Action was disowned by the government, attacked by the opposition, opposed by charities, and criticised by bishops.
I will use the ups and downs of the sector to reflect on what we have learned and to suggest what we should do now.
The Wolfenden report
The Wolfenden Committee report was published in 1978.(2) The committee was set up to examine and review ‘the role and function of voluntary organisations in the United Kingdom over the next 25 years’. The context was that the voluntary sector had gone into steep decline in the immediate post-war period, following the 1945 settlement which replaced voluntary services with state services. In the words of the Wolfenden Committee, it was ‘marking time’.
Unfortunately the report itself did little more. Nigel Siederer, who went on to be the first director of the Association of Charitable Foundations, praised its championing of councils for voluntary service but lamented its overall caution and lack of ambition. Andrew Rowe, a former VSU consultant, bemoaned proposals for small changes in the relationship between statutory and voluntary sectors and between government departments and the slightly altered National Council of Social Service (now NCVO). He complained that ‘It is all cautious, possible and doable, yet the next 25 years for voluntary organisations are likely to be turbulent and not tranquil.’(3)
A particular omission was analysis of the ‘tensions between traditionally run organisations and those run on community participation and self-help’. As Alison Penn has pointed out, G D H Cole called these two types of voluntary action ‘bad mixers’,(4) yet the Committee barely addressed this conflict.
At the time, I was working for the London Voluntary Service Council (LVSC) in the sphere of community participation and self-help, so the Wolfenden Committee had little to say to me or to help me in my work. In the period 1979 to 1982, I published three books on this topic.(5) All were concerned with grassroots action at very local level and operated a million miles – conceptually at least – from the offices of the council for voluntary service that the Wolfenden Committee saw as the engine for development in the sector.
Thinking about this later, the two types of voluntary action – what Beveridge called mutual aid and philanthropy – are similar to the forces in systems theory: emergence and design, with one being ‘bottom up’ and the other being ‘top down’. Both may be essential to any system, but they are different, and you look at only one of these at your peril. This is a theme I will return to.
Despite its self-evident weaknesses, one benefit of the Wolfenden report was that it did stimulate research in the voluntary sector. Stephen Hatch, researcher for the committee, was highly active in bringing together the small number of researchers and the Association of Researchers in Voluntary Action and Community Involvement (ARVAC) was formed. I joined the committee, became secretary and helped to organise conferences.
At LVSC, I got drawn into the saga of the abolition of the Greater London Council (GLC), which energised the field of voluntary action in the early and mid 1980s. It was a highly political issue for obvious reasons, and of special interest to the voluntary sector because, firstly, the GLC was a significant funder and, secondly, some of the grants it made were labelled by the popular press as ‘loony left’. The GLC had been a pioneer of grants to women’s organisations and to black and minority ethnic led organisations. A particular focus of derision was the grants to what were called at the time ‘lesbian and gay organisations’.
My response was to undertake studies of grants to voluntary organisations from London local authorities with my colleague Ruth Hayes. The results were published in two volumes, on grants from the GLC and grants from London boroughs. They showed that almost all of the GLC’s grantmaking was in traditional social and health services and that it had made only six grants to lesbian and gay organisations.
In 1985, I joined the Home Office as consultant to the Voluntary Services Unit (VSU), where I worked on a range of voluntary sector matters, taking a particular interest in community development, race, refugees and evaluation. My job involved being a bridge between the sector and the civil service, helping each side understand each other, and advising on grants. As I joined, Nicholas Hinton, then CEO of the NCVO, said to me ‘good for the CV but pretty frustrating’.
Actually, I loved the job. Although I had no formal power, I realised that there were things I could do if I formed the right relationships, made good arguments and acted as if I was much more important than my pay grade suggested. I had some great colleagues – Penny Lee and Richard Fries among them; I ran what became known as ‘Barry’s café’, bringing all sorts of people into the office to discuss things; and asked what my colleague Francis Jasper called ‘young man’s questions’.
The petty bureaucracy was frustrating, and I was never very good with it. I am sure that the expense claim form was designed by Franz Kafka, and as a result could never find time to fill it in. I am sure that the Home Office still owes me thousands. I worked hard when I was there and learned a lot.
Turning to the work itself, I took part in the issue of abolishing the GLC and the seven metropolitan counties from the other side of the table and supported the process of developing the London Boroughs Grants Scheme, which involved the collaboration of London boroughs in making grants to London-wide voluntary organisations.
I also saw at first hand the difficulties that governments face in dealing with the force of ‘emergence’ I described earlier. I advised on issues of community development, race, refugees and gender. This was where new developments were occurring as society was slowly coming to terms with issues of identity and diversity. I saw that it was difficult for government to engage on issues like this that involved the mass of the population. I also saw that the traditional infrastructure bodies struggled with these issues too. We made some useful but faltering steps in this area.
At the same time, I was aware – and this was confirmed by a study trip to the United States to look at citizens organising through the Industrial Areas Foundation – that some of the best voluntary action happens when citizens develop their own sense of power, and organise themselves and their finances so that they are in charge of their destiny. Government has no role here – other than to be responsive to the demands of citizens. During this time, I met and was influenced by Neil Jameson, an inspirational figure who went on to form Citizens UK, and I am extremely proud to have played a part in supporting him in that venture later on.
During my time at the VSU in the mid to late 1980s, there were three developments in government policy and practice that were to have important effects on the voluntary sector, and which fulfilled Andrew Rowe’s prediction of turbulence. First, reductions in money. In the VSU, this meant that our ‘headroom’ for new development was taken away. Second, the ‘Financial Management Initiative’ forced all government expenditure to be evaluated against three criteria, known as the ‘3 Es’: economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Third and most significant, all grants to voluntary organisations should be made to fulfil government policy. The last of these provisions was designed to end the practice of ‘core funding’.
This was part of a sea change in government that led to what was described as the ‘contract culture’ – implemented through the Next Steps agenda and found in legislation such as the Education Act 1988, Local Government Finance Act 1988 and National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990. My small contribution to the field during my time at the VSU was to work with other funders to develop what became Charities Evaluation Services, an organisation designed to support the voluntary sector to get to grips with the growing need to evaluate their work. I felt that it was important for the voluntary sector to have its own organisation, rather than having an organisation from within the bureaucracy of government.
The CENTRIS report
I left the VSU in 1989 to set up CENTRIS, which has completed more than 300 projects involving more than 50 different funders, British and international.
The changing environment for voluntary action was the main motivation for developing a research project called ‘Voluntary Action in the 1990s’, which eventually led to the CENTRIS report.
We also had the feeling that voluntary organisations were stuck and what Wolfenden had called ‘intermediary bodies’ (councils for voluntary service and the like) were out of touch with the changes all around them. As I left the Home Office, I wrote a paper suggesting there should be a review of the way the voluntary sector organised its support services because there were too many ineffective ones.
The research design was comprehensive. We proposed to study the past, present and future of voluntary action, looking at definitions, history studies of 14 local areas, and national organisations, as well as themes such as management and volunteering. Marilyn Taylor described this as the ‘work of a megalomaniac’. Certainly, we overextended ourselves and I spent months and months writing it. For those of you who have seen the book, you will know that it was enormous. Des Palmer, from Allied Dunbar Charitable Trust, said ‘it makes a great doorstop’.
I sent 11 draft factual chapters to the funders and they liked them. At a review meeting, the Home Office agreed to publish the work in their research series, and at the same meeting all the funders asked me to write where I thought the field should go next. In response, I added two final chapters to the report, under the general heading ‘The high tide of prophecy’ (as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Karl Popper). The final chapter was called ‘What is to be done?’ (a tongue-in-cheek reference to Lenin).
In this final section, I used creativity and imagination to think about what the world might look like. I identified two strands critical to the future of voluntary action according to whether they perform functions of (a) emergence or (b) design in systems theory. Physicist Fritjof Capra, who has written extensively on systems, says both are necessary but it is important to separate them because they require different things and treatments. As we saw earlier, G D H Cole called them ‘bad mixers’.
My argument ran that the changing financial environment would require choices because government was wholly set on the design part of the equation and purchasing services would leave no room for an element of emergence. I did not make recommendations as such.
The press release, written by a professional journalist, synthesised my message in dramatic language. This brought the house down. A typical newspaper article read as follows:
‘ALL CHARITIES would be abolished and divided into non-profit making service providers or campaigning organisations under proposals in a report published by the Home Office today.
Charitable status, and the automatic tax concessions that go with it, would disappear, leaving organisations such as medical research groups and independent schools without tax relief. Campaigning groups would lose government grants and be unregulated, making the Charity Commission redundant.
Only service providers would be entitled to some form of tax relief, and the ability of non-profit making organisations to reclaim VAT and other taxes would depend on an annual evaluation of their performance. Government grants would be subject to stringent audit and evaluation. …
After a survey of 2,000 local and national organisations [the report] concludes that “while some bodies retain a pioneering sense of purpose and moral vision, others have evolved into moribund dinosaurs – hogging grants and donations that could be better spent elsewhere”.
The report proposes that organisations should be divided into two new sectors according to whether they choose to work as “agents of the state”, competing for publicly subsidised contracts. Non-profit or “third sector” organisations would work in partnership with the Government, competing for funds as part of the growing “contract culture”.
“First force” campaigning organisations would be supported by donations from individuals, private companies and charitable trusts and lose state support. These groups, which the report calls “authentic” voluntary bodies, would be “free to pursue ideals, change and reform”. …
Save the Children said the split into service provider and campaigners imposed an artificial division between charities when most were involved in both types of work with one dependent on the other.’
At this point, I experienced my 15 minutes of fame. The Prime Minister described the report as ‘uncharitable’. The opposition rejected it. A leading bishop was wheeled out to criticise it. Leading charities queued up to write articles and letters to the press. It was clear that very few – or indeed any – of these people had actually read the book, despite it having sold out on the first day of publication.
Not everyone reacted like this. Some people liked the report and I still get letters and emails from people saying how inspirational it was. Many of these people see how the voluntary sector had been taken over by establishment interests leaving out minorities and people on the margins and those concerned with the emergence I talked about. The report had hit at power and vested interests. Noam Chomsky said to me ‘you must have done something right’. Apologies for this scandalous piece of namedropping …
Given the widespread abuse, it felt like I had gone into the market square of a medieval town somewhere in Europe and declared ‘God is dead’. The level of opprobrium was considerable. Hywel Griffiths, who had contributed to the study, sent me a fax:
‘Beware, there is no more dangerous animal than a wounded holy cow.’
The NCVO and other leading ‘intermediary bodies’ issued an instruction that I was not to be invited to speak anywhere because my views should not be given an airing.
This embargo did not hold, and I received many invitations to speak. The Directory of Social Change actually promoted the report and civil servants saw to it that I had platforms in different parts of the UK. Charities Aid Foundation asked me to join a team to write Building Civil Society, which became the 1998 Not for Profit Yearbook in which many of the ideas in the CENTRIS report were developed by people who were sympathetic to its ideas. In the same year, I helped to organise an event to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Beveridge’s Voluntary Action in partnership with Citizens UK, an organisation that exemplified the ‘first force’ of emergence and was leading the way in a new form of citizen-led politics.
A decade after publication, we revisited the report. We held a public meeting in London and produced an updated audit of civil society. In the light of subsequent developments, particularly the contract culture and later commissioning, many in the voluntary sector described the report as ‘prescient’. Since then, I am staggered how many people remember it and realise now that I was asking the sector to make choices about which force – emergence or design – it wished to follow. Official money supports design and not emergence. But now things are set to change and there will be more of that later.
The Deakin report
The Deakin Commission was an independent inquiry established by the NCVO and chaired by an academic, Nicholas Deakin. Its remit was to review the challenges facing the voluntary sector in the coming century and to outline how these might be met. The recommendations focused on relations between government and the sector and argued that these could be improved through a more structured and proactive approach by both sides. It was suggested that this could be framed within an overarching concordat governing relations between the two. The report also suggested a public debate leading to a redefinition of the term charity based on the concept of public benefit, and an appeal tribunal with powers to review decisions by the Charity Commission.
The Conservative government at the time of publication in 1996 was cool on the idea of a ‘concordat’ between the government and the voluntary sector, but Labour’s election victory in 1997 brought a change of climate and an enthusiasm for the voluntary sector as part of Blair’s third way between the public and private sectors. The government took up the concordat idea, producing its own compact, and the strategy unit set to work to draw up proposals for legal reform.
The Deakin report was therefore influential with government and popular with the establishment end of the voluntary sector. It led to reforms to boost the voluntary sector’s role in providing public services – now a major source of finance for the sector – and to create a framework for better relations between charities and the government, notably through the compact, which was signed in 1998.
At the same time, the report was very much concerned with the established end of the voluntary sector and had little to say about the dynamic forces of emergence. The relationship with government and the enabling environment such as legal and fiscal arrangements matter, but they are only one part of the picture.
There was hardly ever a question raised about whether government support for the voluntary sector was a good thing. In 2006, I wrote an article for Alliance magazine called ‘Killing the voluntary sector with kindness’. The voluntary sector had grown much bigger but, as Claire Thomas said at a conference in 2006 : ‘Once there was a small voluntary sector that punched above its weight, and now we have a very much bigger voluntary sector…’ She didn’t finish the sentence but everyone in the room knew what she meant. Fashioning the voluntary sector in accord with government priorities carries huge costs and effectively sacrifices the independence of the sector.
In 2007, I published a report with Sue Robson on the Value and Independence of the Voluntary Sector, funded by six charitable foundations. This showed widespread mission drift among voluntary organisations caused by trying to fit themselves into the contortions required by government priorities. At the time, I wrote a paper for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about the idiocy of top-down planning for local action using centralised performance indicators and how civil society was best allowed to flourish from below. In these ventures, I was totally ignored.
In his 2013 book, Rediscovering voluntary action, Colin Rochester described how the process of social engineering the voluntary sector unfolded and recorded its deleterious consequences.(6) He concludes:
‘In the process, the idea of “voluntary action” as an independent and distinctive sphere of activity has suffered a great deal of collateral damage. The trajectory of the “voluntary sector” juggernaut has diverted attention away from the voluntary associations that are the “ideal type” of voluntary sector organisation and obliterated the associational elements that contribute to the hybrid nature of many voluntary organisations by concentrating our eyes on their bureaucratic dimensions. In the process, many voluntary organisations have lost sight of their original purposes and functions; have surrendered much of their independence of thought and action; have been “captured” by their staff or their senior managers; have failed many or all of their users or beneficiaries; and, apart from not distributing their profits and surpluses as dividends, are indistinguishable from private sector companies.” (p 243)
The situation has gone from bad to worse. First, we had the Kids Company fiasco. Then we had scandals at Save the Children and Oxfam UK. These showed, in the words of the International Development Committee of MPs, an ‘abject failure’ to ‘deal with longstanding concerns about sexual exploitation’. In addressing the issue, it was suggested, the organizations had shown more concern for their reputations than for the victims. But this is not all. Former staff have suggested that, behind the disgrace, there are factors of ambition that subvert the noble charitable goals of the institutions. Writing in Open Democracy, Jonathan Glennie notes that one of the goals of Save the Children was to ‘take down Oxfam’. The desire for growth and influence have led to falls from grace of other charities, including one of the biggest funders in the world. the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, whose relentless search for growth led to a culture of ‘workplace bullying and harassment’. Such developments are very serious and threaten the entire brand. Trust in charities has hit an all-time low.
The Unwin report
This is the context in which Civil Society Futures, an independent inquiry led by Julia Unwin, published its report in 2018, The Story of Our Times: shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society. It says that fundamental changes to how charities and other civil society actors operate are needed to ensure there is more accountability to beneficiaries. The report outlines major changes which need to happen in four areas:
- Power: power needs to be shifted so that everyone is involved in decision-making
- Accountability: organisations must be more accountable to the communities they serve
- Connection: civil society must build broader and deeper connections within and between communities
- Trust: organisations need to put effort into building and earning trust and ensure they are behaving in line with their values
Commenting on the Unwin report, Paul Streets, chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, noted:
‘… too many people in communities across the country feel left behind by a politics, economy and society that is not working for them. We agree with the inquiry that we, therefore, need a civil society that shifts power, revolutionises accountability, builds real, meaningful connections and invests in building trust.’
He also points out:
‘Whilst civil society should seek to be the master of its own fate, unless we see a clear and consistent change in the wider environment and in particular in the level, distribution and commissioning of public funding it will be very hard to achieve the thriving civil society that we need. It is therefore vital that the calls in this inquiry are heard, reflected and acted on, not just across civil society but in Whitehall and town halls up and down the country.’
This brings us more or less up to date. From all points of view, we are not in a good place.
Underlying what I have done in my own career in the UK voluntary sector there have been several important values – particularly notions of justice, fairness, fun and conviviality, but my interest in voluntary action is really contained in the subtitle of Beveridge’s 1948 book Voluntary Action: ‘A report on methods of social advance’. It is the phrase ‘social advance’ – the question of how we can harness voluntary action to make progress in society – that matters to me. That is the lens through which I have seen voluntary action throughout the years.
Though I am reluctant to conclude with another ‘what is to be done?’ section, I will offer some thoughts – also coloured by the idea of voluntary action leading to social advance.
- The Unwin report is in tune with the Global Fund for Community Foundation’s #ShiftThePower movement in which the control of resources needs to be as close to citizens as possible. Citizens UK shows how this can be done. I am involved as a volunteer with Tyne & Wear Citizens – an organisation that on a tiny budget can bring 1,000 citizens together to discuss matters that concern them. Authentic voluntary action lies with the ‘first force’ of the CENTRIS report since only that approach has the potential to transform society from below.
- Funders need to support processes of emergence rather than design. There are encouraging signs from the #ShiftThePower movement, and a group of funders is meeting in the UK to discuss how to support these developments.
- We need international NGOS and big voluntary organisations to re-examine their role. The evidence suggests that their business model is broken, and the options appear to be creative destruction or radical reform.
- We need a revolution in the way that we capture knowledge in the voluntary sector. There is widespread dissatisfaction about university-based research and there are a number of moves afoot to make research more relevant to action.(7)
- Finally, following up from my 2017 book Rethinking Poverty, we need to recognise that civil society is part of an ecosystem in which the framing needs to be ‘how do we develop a good society?’
A two-day meeting in Letchworth Garden City on 26 and 27 July 2018 suggested that there are three key elements in any vision for a good society:
- Radical civil society – spaces for reimagining, for purposeful construction: throughout the country/world a great deal of energy is going into seeking a new future, and people are developing local initiatives and beginning to create alternative, sustainable, local economies
- Values-based markets – markets that do not aim solely for profit but intentionally aim to create significant good
- A good state – with the twin roles of enabling and guaranteeing: enabling and supporting change to happen, and guaranteeing a level below which no one/nowhere should sink.
How do you combine these? This is a big question, but these are the ones that we are working on. If you are interested, see more at Rethinking Poverty.
- The full quotation is: ‘It is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself. As a man without memory and self-knowledge is a man adrift, so a society without memory (or more correctly without recollection) and self-knowledge would be a society adrift.’ Arthur Marwick (1970) The nature of history, London: Methuen, p 3.
- The Future of Voluntary Organisations (Wolfenden report), Croom Helm, London, 1978.
- Andrew Rowe, ‘Review of The Future of Voluntary Organisations’, Journal of Social Policy, vol 7, issue 4, October 1978, pp 491-3.
- G D H Cole (1945), ‘Mutual Aid Movements, in relation to voluntary social service’, in A F C Bourdillon (ed) Voluntary Social Services. Their place in the modern state, London: Methuen, p 118. Quoted by Alison Penn, (2011) ‘Social history and organizational development: revisiting Beveridge’s Voluntary Action’ in Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action: Historical perspectives on current social policy, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, pp17-31.
- Family groups in the community (1979), Self help in the inner city (1981) and The self help economy (1982).
- Colin Rochester (2013) Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The beat of a different drum, London: Palgrave MacMillan.
- See the bias in the way that the Third Sector Research Centre developed its programme and you can see why very little of the research is of much use to the emergent part of the field: ‘The Centre’s research agenda and programme are rooted in close collaboration with key organisations (including ACEVO, NCVO, Guidestar) and reflect priorities identified by these organisations. Partner organisations play a strategic role in steering the research programmes, with individual organisations engaging more closely with specific, and relevant, areas of activity.’ See https://esrc.ukri.org/research/our-research/third-sector-research-centre-tsrc/
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