Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and a CMI Companion, warns voluntary sector managers that a golden age is ending.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The coming years are going to be difficult for both the voluntary sector and for the individuals and communities we work with. But although it is true that we are faced with a number of challenges, I believe that the current climate also presents our sector with real opportunities. It is our responsibility to make the most of these.

In the past 10 years or so, there has been significant growth in both the scale and the scope of the voluntary sector. Our annual income grew from £17bn in 1996/97 to just over £33bn in 2006/07, the last year for which we have full figures. Donated income - grants, legacies and individual donations - remains vital, accounting for more than 40% of our income. But earned income now amounts to more than half of the sector's financial resources.

In part, this growth can be attributed to the fact that our sector provides increasing levels of public services under contract. But it is also the case that the sector is becoming more entrepreneurial in its approach.

That said, voluntary sector managers need to recognise that the golden age of investment in both our sector and public services is coming to an end. At the same time, the impact of the recession has intensified the need for the services that we provide. We are faced with the challenge of meeting increasing needs with diminishing resources. We also need to be prepared for the impact that a changing political landscape will have on us. The general election is imminent, and, whatever its political outcome, there will be many new faces in Parliament. There is a clear opportunity for us here.

Politicians of all sides talk of the need to build the good society. As part of this process, we must learn the lessons of the recent financial failures and the recession. We need to look at new and different solutions rather than just go back to business as usual. I believe that our sector has a critical role to play; we have a duty to help shape and articulate this vision and, of course, help make it a reality.

It is essential that managers across the voluntary sector seize the opportunity to present their work to this new audience to ensure they understand our present undertakings and their future potential. It will not be enough to say that we are important in creating the good society, or to believe that people will work with us because of who we are. We need to be very clear about who we are, what we can contribute to the good society, and how.

For example, politicians on all sides have recognised the role that our sector might play in transforming public services. This is a huge potential growth area for charities. But there are associated risks.

There is much discussion about whether or not taking government contracts undermines the sector's independence. Can we continue to develop innovative solutions if we are bound by a contract? And what does it mean for our role as campaigners and advocates if we take government funding?

I do not subscribe to the view expressed in some quarters that we should not take on government contracts to deliver public services. Where we can add value to that service, and where taking on a contract helps us to achieve our mission, it is in the interests of service users and communities that we should do so.

But I also have reservations about those in the voluntary sector who seem to want to expand to take over some public services wholesale, or those outside it who see us as a cheap alternative provider to the state or the market. We are not agents of the state and we should not allow others to treat us as such.

So what does all of this mean in practice? There can be a misconception that our sector is not professional - or, in some quarters, that we should not be professionalised. This is not the case. Like any other sector, we need managers with a high level of skills. We need to manage our organisations well, to have clear strategic vision and focus. We need to be businesslike, but not necessarily like business.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations works to provide the support and advice that voluntary organisations need to strengthen their business practices, to recruit and build up their staff, and to support and develop leaders of the future.

Our recent annual conference provided managers with one of the last opportunities before the election to contribute to a shared vision of what we as a sector think this good society should look like. Part of the conference involved discussion on how to tackle four key challenges where action is needed: strengthening community cohesion, promoting individual and community well-being, addressing climate change and ensuring the financial security of individuals and communities.

If we are to succeed in meeting these challenges, it's imperative that the managers and leaders working towards that vision have the right skills and expertise. The most vulnerable in our society depend on it.

CV: Stuart Etherington was appointed chief executive of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations in 1994. With more than 7,500 member organisations, the NCVO represents the interests of charities and voluntary bodies. Etherington was previously chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.

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