Medium adieu  christine

This is the last blog ever from Christine Pattison, who retires today after many years as our Senior Policy Officer. We – and we are sure you – wish Christine a happy and satisfying returement and say a huge thank you for all the Policy and Information over the years.

VCOs are like little sail boats – they know where they want to go, there is a lot of wind, but they’re tacking back and forth to catch policy changes and funding streams. They end up capsizing, no longer seaworthy enough.

When I started doing policy and information work, this was the message of the keynote speaker at one of the first conferences I went to and it hit me between the eyes. The speaker went on, accusing the sector of being flabby and too traditional in its approach and asking how much has actually changed over the decades – the need is still there and new need keeps adding to it.

Now it has to be said that the speaker was an advocate for an entrepreneurial response, rather than a palliative one, to need. I wouldn’t go as far as saying social enterprise is for everyone, or even a viable solution for all circumstances. However, my time working in Hampshire has created mixed feelings.

When I first started out, I was often told that charity provided the icing on the cake of public services, reversing what had been the case pre-welfare state. Now it seems to be providing the cake again. There are organisations doing some great things, but there are also fundamental questions for the future, such as ‘should the sector respond to the agenda set by the public sector or its own vision for what needs to be achieved?’

Austerity over recent years has thrown this into sharp relief. You can understand why the charge of austerity enablers could have a ring of truth, when in some quarters the course of action has been to accept the direction of travel by the public sector – if you like, the rolling back of the state – and to ask ‘how can we help you achieve this?’ rather than be true to principles which might suggest this is absolutely not the right thing to do. Grants and contracts have played their part in this, with people understandably wanting to safeguard their future and not upset those controlling the purse strings. You sometimes wonder, too, if there is some self-aggrandisement going on, with what can sometimes appear to be an unseemly rush to say volunteers can take on all sorts of things, but this needs careful thinking against the backdrop of a quickly changing society and labour market (and who’s driving that change) as well as what the service user really wants.

Not long ago I read an article about charities having to adapt to a low-trust society, and discovered that someone has published a book called Charity Sucks. Much like the speaker above, the author feels that the charity sector has failed and will continue to fail, wedded to an outdated model of noblesse oblige. Again, it was the case that he is in favour of social enterprise and of taking impact seriously.

What were most organisations set up for? – social justice, human rights, respect, dignity – all those things, and to bring about change. So is the sector delivering change, empowerment and control to beneficiaries, can it point to real progress, is it prepared to lock horns, and if not, could it do this better by service delivery, or by campaigning, social action and energising social movements?

Charities and voluntary organisations no longer have a monopoly, if they ever did, on doing social good. Other players are moving into the territory including social enterprises, public sector spin-offs, mutuals and profit making businesses which all say they stand for ‘social good’.

While this blog is to an extent playing devil’s advocate, that is not to deny the wonderful examples of what organisations and volunteers can do.

However, those shifting sands can catch anyone out, and a good compass is invaluable. How reliable is yours?