Trust launches research into the Independence of the Sector
Ulster University's Markus Ketola, who authored the research, at the launch in November 2016.

Trust launches research into the Independence of the Sector

29 November 2016

The Trust has launched the findings of a two year research project, carried out by Ulster University, into the independence of the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Sector in Northern Ireland.

The event was held at the Long Gallery, Stormont with inputs from Chair of the Committee for Communities Colum Eastwood MLA, Ivan Cooper from the Wheel, Caroline Slocock from Civil Exchange, Arthur Scott from the Department for Communities and NICVA’s Seamus McAleavey.

Paul Braithwaite from the Building Change Trust, said it was vital that VCSE organisations were seen to be independent and act as a voice for the communities they serve rather than becoming another arm of government.

He added: “We welcome these findings as an opportunity to think about how we can make the sector more collaborative, innovative and impactful for communities across Northern Ireland.

“With the relationship between government and the sector constantly evolving, it is important for both parties to understand the wants and needs of the other to ensure the needs of communities are being put 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.”

The research included an online questionnaire completed by 179 individuals from 166 organisations, including 83 CEOs. It also used a series of focus groups and interviews to sample attitudes within the sector and government.

Ulster University lecturer Dr Markus Ketola, who compiled the report, said: “this report has captured a moment when the government-voluntary sector relationship is undergoing significant change. The future of this relationship has not yet been decided, and this research can help inform discussions about what the relationship between the sector and government will look like in the future.”

The report found:

  • Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there has been a shift away from the idea of ‘’equitable partnership’’ between government and the sector meaning that government funded groups will need to align their objectives with pre-determined government objectives to be in receipt of funding.
  • Unrealistic expectation and pressure from government for the sector to rationalise through mergers and forms of collaboration that might not be in the best interests of beneficiaries.
  • The movement towards large contracts has excluded smaller and medium size organisations whose only means of retaining local service can be through subcontracting – a phenomenon that can create a false impression of sectoral diversity through relationships based on a very narrow definition of partnership.
  • In the quest for organisational survival, according to a number of funders, some organisations have found themselves in difficulties as they try to align their mission and structures with government funding streams, potentially compromising their original stated purpose.
  • A major concern of many interviewees is the overly close relationship between politicians and some voluntary and community sector organisations which can result in perceptions of ‘pet projects’ that might not always put the best interests of communities first.
  • Policy hasn’t always been in line with rhetoric, positioning the sector much more as an agent of the state, rather than a partner.

The launch event was well attended by key figures within the sector and there was some interesting feedback on what the sector needs to do next to ensure its long term independence.

The initial feedback suggested the following issues were key:

  • Debate within the sector.
  • Finding a stronger & more confident voice on social issues.
  • Retain integrity with regard to independence of purpose, voice & action.
  • Use the refreshing of the concordat and the potential development of a white paper on voluntary action as possible opportunities to open up this conversation.

As well as this, there is a belief that government needs to respect the values & added value of the VCSE sector and there is a need for government to understand the difference between commercial, private sector organisations, and organisations within the VCSE sector.

Click on the links to download the Report and the Summary Report