Just how independent are charities in Northern Ireland

Just how independent are charities in Northern Ireland

09 February 2016

The Trust, working with Ulster University, have produced a major piece of research looking at the independence of the Northern Ireland Voluntarty, Community and Social Enterprise sector. We invited Scope NI along to the launch and here's what they thought...

Scope unpicks the issues at the heart of a divisive debate as serious questions are raised about the sector’s independence

The Building Change Trust in conjunction with researchers at the University of Ulster has launched the first part of a major piece of research on the independence of the voluntary and community sector. 

It raises troubling questions and contains some evidence of a rift developing between larger charities involved in service delivery and activist organisations. The fall out from a similar debate in England is still being felt. Last year the National Coalition for Independent Action which was set up to challenge “the complicity of big national charities and infrastructure organisations in the government’s co-opting of the voluntary. Sector” disbanded stating:“We have failed in our other aspiration – to persuade mainstream voluntary services to speak out with others in pursuit of social justice and defend their autonomy as independent forces for change.”

The BCT research brings that debate to Northern Ireland. At its heart are these issues:

Is the community and voluntary sector truly independent or has it become a tool to implement government policy and if so does that matter?

In that context to what extent is government offering contracts to charities who pay their workers less than public sector workers to save money?

Is it important that charities campaign for social change or is effective service delivery all that matters ?

Are charities inhibited from campaigning for change because they fear repercussions from civil servants or politicans?

Does the current public procurement regime inhibit innovation amongst charities who are forced to work according to a pre-ordained script which may or may not deliver the desired outcomes?  

Are many charities too fearful of losing contracts to propose alternative that might work better?

Is it a good thing that charities are increasingly adopting practices from the private and public sectors, or is this eroding their distinctiveness?

These are big, fundamental issues that go the heart of the purpose and mission of charities. Some would rather not have that debate right now, cuts are taking their toll everywhere, and survival is the name of the game. But they will not go away, and they raise questions about whether charities have lost their souls, and whether some are so similar to private sector, or even public sector bodies, that their distinctive nature has disappeared.

A similar piece of research was conducted in England last year by the Baring Trust. It concluded the following:

  • There has been a loss of the sector’s distinctive identity and respect for its independence.
  •  There is a lack of meaningful government consultation with the sector.
  •  Statutory funding is not supporting a strong, independent and diverse sector, and poor commissioning and procurement practices fail to draw on the distinctive strengths of voluntary organisations.
  •  There are ineffective safeguards for sectoral independence. 
  •  There are threats to independent governance

Northern Ireland, of course, is not England, and the voluntary and community sector here has a very different history and so BCT’s research is aimed at establishing to what extent the same factors are at play.

The first report, billed as interim findings is based on research within the sector, the next phase will involve engagement with both politicians and civil servants.

There are of course two sides to this debate. It does not follow that government policy is necessarily at odds with the interests of a charities’ beneficiaries. Some charities are quite properly solely dedicated to service delivery. The Westminster government has also been quite clear that it believes charities should “stick to their knitting”, and not engage in “politics”. Hence the Transparency of Lobbying Bill.

The sector itself is diverse, both in terms of organisations represented and its people. Many people do not see themselves as “activists” and many would take exception with a quote picked out in the report from a worker involved in lobbying and policy: “When you go into a meeting or an event now, it is three quarters of men in suits, businessmen, who I do not know…when years ago, and this is really true, everybody was wearing jeans and jumpers. The whole face of people, the whole face of the sector has changed because it’s not the community and the voluntary, it’s the big service providers.”

The notion that influencing policy would be somehow more effective and authentic if sector workers were to wear denim is absurd, as is the implication that if the anonymous lobbyist does not know others involved in similar work that is somehow to their detriment. Yet the comment is revelatory as it evidences the way that “big” charities are perceived by some in the sector. It also suggests that there is a rift and that things within the sector could become ugly and unpleasant unless the issues raised are honestly addressed and result in an inclusive debate.  

Either way there will be plenty of time for charities to get involved in this process before the final report is published. 

This article first appeared in Scope NI. You can follow them on Twitter at @ScopeNI, visit their website at scopeni.nicva.org and you can subscribe to their weekly email here

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