Independence of Voluntary and Community Sector must be Preserved
The Building Change Trust was established by the Big Lottery Fund in 2008 to support the Northern Ireland Voluntary and Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector and explore the challenges of a rapidly changing environment.
The issue of the sector’s independence has been a recurrent theme across our work, raised by sector representatives, who believe this independence was central to the work and role of the sector but also being undermined or even taken away.
In response to local concerns and in light of some work on the issue in Great Britain, particularly the Baring Foundation’s Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, we commissioned Ulster University to carry out a two year research initiative to probe the issues further and build a local evidence-base.
Our intention is to inform and equip the sector to debate and self-reflect, as well as to engage in meaningful dialogue with government and other policymakers and funders about the nature and practice of its relationships with them.
The final report, issued on November 28, gives us a sense of what policy makers feel about this changing relationship.
The research findings tell us, despite rhetoric to the contrary, there has been a shift away from the idea of ‘’equitable partnership’’ between government and the sector.
This means some groups funded by government feel they must align their objectives with, and refrain from criticising, government in order to receive funding.
This seriously undermines the role of the sector as a voice for communities in Northern Ireland.
The Trust believes the sector is both a means to an end – the delivery of social outcomes, and an end in itself – a permanent mechanism for voicing the needs and concerns of communities.
Consequently, it would be legitimate that government would have, as a policy objective, the growth and development of an independent VCSE sector in NI.
It is equally legitimate that government would identify the sector as able to help deliver government policy.
Taking this into account, it is also legitimate that organisations in the sector would look to their relationship with government to ensure the needs of people and places are foremost in policy and delivery.
None of this does, or should, compromise the independence of the sector.
In fact, finding the right combination of these different aspects of the relationship will produce the best outcome.
Northern Ireland is a small place, and has special circumstances in the context of our conflict and ongoing community division. The shape and pattern of voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations locally is a complex product of history, development, funding and policy. The relationship between the sector and government is both complex and dynamic.
However, we must never forget that despite the history and complexity of relationships, the independence of the sector is key.
Where government only sees the sector as a vehicle for delivery of government, or political objectives, lies the danger of a failure to deliver for beneficiaries in the longer term and a fundamental conflict with the very basic principles on which voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations are formed.
In a rapidly changing context, greater clarity and mutual understanding about the direction and intention of travel must be sought by all parties, with the needs of communities being at the centre of all the decisions we make.
Failure to do so could result in a further fragmentation of the sector, greater acrimony in the historically important relationship between government and the sector and, ultimately, a failure to achieve the better outcomes for citizens that all of us desire.
The Trust are just one of a host of organisations in the VCSE Sector working in a number of ways to try and ensure the VCSE sector is equipped to deliver these outcomes.
We’re working alongside organisations like UCIT and Cooperative Alternatives to develop new social finance models, such as access to loan finance and cooperatives, to help enable financial independence and autonomy.
We believe innovation will help the sector deliver to communities so have launched Social Innovation NI, a collaboration providing innovation support.
We’re helping the sector develop its voice through piloting civic engagement projects, supporting the Open Government Network and researching the health of participative democracy here in Northern Ireland.
All these initiatives will help the sector face up to the challenges of the future but they need to happen in an environment of autonomy and independence to have real impact on the ground.