A personal take on the voluntary sector’s dilemma

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Photo of Sarah LambSarah Lamb, trustee of Adur Voluntary Action and a lifelong volunteer, explains why the Transforming Local Infrastructure scheme won’t work

The beauty of the voluntary sector has been, and still is in many instances, precisely the fact that the solutions it finds, the ways it relates to the people it serves and the people it attracts, and the values it upholds, all emanate from a sense of creativity, freedom and independence. There are many reasons for this.

The major asset in any local voluntary organisation is its people; it doesn’t normally own buildings, there are no “customers” with financial potential, and there are no realisable widgets.

Much of the energy of a voluntary sector manager (let’s call them a manager, it could be organiser/coordinator/chief officer) is directed towards nurturing the most valuable asset, and that means spending time developing meaningful, intelligent human relationships. It’s a mutual give-and-take, because people who give up their time and effort for little or no financial reward, want to be treated with respect.

The organisation does not view its staff (waged or unwaged) only in terms of what it can get out of them. A sense of family, of belonging, of being valued for our individuality, is crucial.

Many of the people drawn to the voluntary sector find the lack of corporateness, the independence and the locally-rooted nature of their organisation very attractive. They might have spent years working for large private companies, or within the public sector, and relish the thought of being more than a faceless cog in a vast machine. Or they might be rejecting perhaps more lucrative careers in favour of less tangible but equally valid rewards.

Young people, or those excluded from so many other opportunities because of their circumstances, might look for experience in a supportive, nurturing and accepting environment. So all bring to the organisation their skills, their principles and their hopes, and together they create an ethos and a vision they will work hard to bring about.

There is little money in the voluntary sector, but a huge amount is achieved with the little there is. Solutions must be simple and effective because there is no need to create work – there is always too much to do and not enough resources. Invariably statutory sector employees and ex-corporate volunteers marvel at what can be done with so little, and it is a lesson in thrift and common sense. Zero based budgeting was a fact of life in the voluntary sector long before it became a corporate fashion.

The small local voluntary organisation grows from its community’s needs, and tailors its endeavours to what works for that local community. Just as species adapt to their local environment and take on different characteristics, so local groups are richly diverse.

The criticism levelled so often at the voluntary sector – that it is inconsistent and fragmented – stems from a one-size-fits-all mentality that completely misses the point. One size is usually a big size, and it’s too big, so big that it engulfs all the creativity and individuality that is the essence of a local organisation.

The only possible advantage of across-the-board uniformity is that, for those wishing to impose it, it transfers control from local to regional or national. For local community organisations, big is not beautiful; it is dictatorial, homogeneous, disabling bureaucracy. It’s like trampling on the seedlings of an indigenous forest to plant conifers.

When local organisations merge to form large entities, the management structure is inevitably subject to the greatest amount of surgery. Existing managers – their own jobs on the line – scrabble to be the most enthusiastic proponent of the merger, in the hope that they will have a place in the newly-rationalised organisation. Who can blame them? It’s what happens in the private and public sectors. Objectivity and community interest are sacrificed at the altar of spurious claims to save money and create efficiencies, especially when both funders and umbrella organisations are extolling the virtues of merging.

Effectively there is no choice – swim against the tide and you run the risk of being labelled a maverick, of being accused of trying to protect your own job, and worse still of not having what it takes to cut it in the brave new world of corporate volunteerism.

So managers – and therefore the organisations they run – capitulate, turn away from the roots of their organisation, and set about imposing the new culture. There follows a period of intense introspection, with managers struggling to retain the goodwill of the people who make up the organisation (remember them? – the most valuable asset). They no longer have time to nurture those human relationships, or if they do, it is at great personal sacrifice. Instead of focussing on community needs, local relationships and local solutions, they take on endless meetings to discuss and defend the changes.

Uniformity brings with it swathes of paperwork, of targets, of desk-bound paper-shuffling. The newly-appointed manager spends less time on the ground, developing those all-important relationships and fostering creativity, and more time ticking boxes, filling in forms and bean-counting – all those activities that a self-justifying administration requires. The manager has less energy for the individual, and they are less of an individual themselves – they have lost autonomy because power has shifted from the individual to the bureaucracy. The merged organisation attracts a different type of leader – salaries are higher, ambitions greater, and those who can play the game of managerial bureaucracy (which is interested in prolonging its own life) prevail.

After all that, were there really any savings to be made? Unlikely. The volunteer who used to keep the computers fit for purpose in the small local organisation couldn’t possibly do the same on a larger scale. So IT maintenance goes out to tender, or a new post is created. The volunteer who ordered stationery for one building couldn’t take on the responsibility of corporate orders. So someone has to be paid to do it.

So the inconsistent, fragmented approach that worked is gradually whittled away: homogeneity costs. Economies of scale in the voluntary sector are often fictitious, and anyway outweighed by the diseconomies where the small community will lose out. The smaller organisations subsumed in a merger transfer their income stream to the bigger organisation, and sooner or later small becomes insignificant.

It is much more likely that a hard-pressed regional or national manager will fail to see the benefits of locally based services in small communities, because in the grand scheme of things it seems relatively inefficient. Resources which could fund the local service are being diverted to that managerial bureaucracy.

No doubt given time things will come full circle – Photo of Sarah Lamb

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