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Voluntary sector growing


Society is growing, and it’s down to state support rather than a big increase in civic duty.

Data released today shows that the size and number of voluntary organisations is increasing – good news for all of us who want to see a burgeoning civil society. This is good news too for the three main political parties, all of whom seem to want a larger role for the sector, especially in the delivery of public sector services.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Almanac is based on extensive research, and is worth checking out. It shows that the sector’s workforce is up and organisations have gained financial stability through greater ownership of assets and independent income streams. A large chunk of the increased money coming into the sector is from the government, which has been increasing by around a billion pounds per year over the last few years.

Although the last year of increasing unemployment has meant that volunteering is up, the NCVO’s latest figures from 2008/2009 show that levels of participation have generally stayed steady at around 41% of the population formally volunteering each year. Philanthropy is not increasing, and is not likely to increase this year. The British people haven’t suddenly become gripped by their civic duty; they are not contributing more of their time and their money. The only income stream that has been increasing a good deal each year is that from statutory sources, both grants and public sector contracts.

Civil society is growing, but mainly because of government. This has meant changing the structure of the state to pay other providers and fund effective work that is already being done. Nonetheless, as I mentioned in my discussion of the Conservative manifesto, it also means a relatively large state, with enough resources to support a Big Society. ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state’ might be a good sound bite, but it isn’t entirely true, there is large overlap between the two. Reducing the state is unlikely to increase the size of civil society. 25,000 voluntary organisations are heavily reliant on government income, and today’s figures have already led to warnings that the crucial services delivered by civil society are at risk from public sector cuts.


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  1. Dave West permalink

    At a voluntary / civic event yesterday there was a feeling those involved “don’t need David Cameron’s help” to thrive. Clearly it appears much activity is reliant on state cash.

    It seem possible that by funding non-state run activities and services initially they will gradually become more self reliant and less inclined to look to the state. Is there any evidence of this?

    But if we are expecting this activity to replace publicly provided services it seems fair to expect it is funded by the state – so remaining public services. That will be the case while citizens expect public services to be paid for by the state, and pay taxes for them.

    Moving away from the situation would seem to involve taking apart the payment mechanisms – eg social care insurance or state spending being further devolved and separated from the state – eg state-funded insurance or personal budgets.

    • This is of course the big idea behind social enterprise – organisations which before relied on occasional donations or maybe short term contracts finding different funding streams or investing in assets so that they could fund themselves longer term. Many of the government schemes have been built around funding for a few years which then drops off, assuming it will have been replaced by that point.

      On public services, this all works well for services that aren’t already provided. Some community centres (inc in health) do good extra things from non-govt funding as well as providing govt services. If they weren’t already providing a core service funded by tax, they might not be able to provide the extras, at least over a long period. But if we want a service to be universal and totally publically funded (so not necessarily inc. social care then?) it probably makes sense to centrally coordinate, at least to ensure standards are high enough.

      I would actually argue that government action (eg local partnerships, mentoring schemes) has helped a bit, but it’s the funding (inc these start up funds) that has helped the most. Although independence for the sector is an issue, I would suggest at the current time it’s less important than getting money to good projects. They might not want Cameron’s meddling, but if he becomes PM they’ll be hoping OTS survives!

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