Social Science blog

26 April 2013

What is the future of the voluntary sector? TSRC National Conference

Bridget Lockyer, a PhD student at the University of York, reviews the TSRC conference which was held at the British Library in April 2013.

In 2013, the voluntary sector is in a state of flux and disruption. After a period of expansion and mainstreaming under New Labour, a change in the political and economic climate has led to scaling back of financial support and a different ideological approach to the voluntary sector and the provision of welfare in general. This has led to questions about the role of the voluntary sector in the UK and how organisations can adjust to this new environment.

The TSRC was established in 2008 with the aim to enhance knowledge of the sector through independent and critical research. A collaborative project between the University of Birmingham and the University of Southampton, it received five years of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Office for Civil Society (previously the Office of the Third Sector) and the Barrow Cadbury Trust. As this current funding is set to end, the event at the British Library on 19th April was a chance for practitioners, researchers and policy makers to discuss the key issues facing the sector and contribute to the TSRC’s Futures Dialogue.

The conference was also an occasion to reflect on the vast amount of current third sector research and the resources available to those within and those researching the sector. TSRC director, Pete Alcock, informed us that the TSRC has produced almost 100 working papers on the current state and future of the voluntary sector. We were also reminded about the TSRC’s Knowledge Portal, an online and searchable library which collates academic papers, reports by voluntary organisations and government policy documents. This is a really useful tool for those seeking third sector evidence. Head of Social Sciences at The British Library, Jude England, discussed the Social Welfare Portal, launched in December 2012 as a single point of access to its print and digital collections of research and information on social welfare policy development, implementation and evaluation. Fiona Armstrong from the ESRC reiterated their continuing commitment to third sector research, via the Big Data Investment and the Centre and Large Grants capital funding initiative.

The day was organised into five themed workshops: People, Organisations, Resources, Independence and Impact. I had chosen ‘Workshop A: People’ which focused on the voluntary sector workforce, volunteering, skills and training, chaired by Stephen McKay (TSRC) with Keith Mogford (Skills-Third Sector) speaking. Keith discussed some of the challenges facing the voluntary sector workforce, including underemployment (as full-time, permanent roles are scarce); constrained training budgets; organisations playing it safe in recruitment decisions (chosing experience over enthusiasm); lack of long-term strategic planning and increased job insecurity. He also summarised the preliminary findings of the Marsh Review, a review commissioned by Nick Hurd, minister for civil society, which, through holding a series of conversations with key figures in the third sector, set out to recommend ways in which the sector can maintain and improve its skills. The recommendations Keith outlined were: increased digital fluency; better use and sharing of data; higher standard of governance; greater enterprise and innovation; more effective collaboration, the building of effective entry routes to and through the sector (for graduates and school-leavers) and better leadership development and management. The workshop group were very interested in these findings and the review’s recommendations and there was a general sense of despair about the false economy of short termism within the sector.

The discussion moved on to talk about young people, internships, apprenticeships and volunteering and the moral dilemmas inherent in providing and managing unpaid work. I was particularly interested in a discussion about the career routes into and through the sector as this was very relevant for my own research. The group considered how the voluntary sector could accentuate the strengths of work in the sector to attract graduates and school leavers. The distinctiveness of a career in the sector was examined, e.g. the horizontal rather than vertical career progression; the ‘portfolio’ or ‘rucksack’ career format and the fluidity and movement within the sector. Although the group devised two different questions to ask in the following ‘question time’ panel session, the question that stuck in my head was the age-old ‘what makes the voluntary sector different?’. To be specific, does/should the voluntary sector have a special commitment to provide jobs and a greater sense of responsibility (compared to other sectors) in the treatment of its workforce? I was left pondering these questions as we moved into the final sessions.

During the next session chaired by Sara Llewellin from Barrow Cadbury Trust, panel members Debra Allcock Tyler, Jonathon Breckon, Caroline Slocock, Karl Wilding and Pete Alcock were asked the workshops’ questions. The questions and answers focused on what the core values of the sector should be, the value of collaboration and partnership working, how to maintain voluntary sector assertiveness and its relationships with other sectors and organisations. This was a friendly and lively discussion, which gave a great overview of the current debates taking place within the voluntary sector.

The final plenary was given by David Walker, an ESRC council member. He expressed some criticism of the current government’s approach to empirical evidence, describing today as the best and worst of times to be a researcher of public policy. I agreed with him to a large extent but was unsure of the suggestion that those who research the voluntary sector could themselves be ‘moral heroes’, mindful of Debra Allcock Tyler’s comment in the previous session that ‘the voluntary sector does not have the monopoly on good intentions or worthy actions’.

It can often be quite difficult and frustrating to bring together different stakeholders who have diverse experiences and perspectives, but it is always worth doing. Overall, the conference provided an excellent networking opportunity and generated some stimulating discussion on the current condition of the voluntary sector and what its future role might be.

Bridget Lockyer is in the second year of an AHRC funded PhD at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. She is researching women’s experiences of volunteering and working in the community and voluntary sector since the 1970s.

This blog post was originally published on Bridget’s blog: bridgetlockyer.wordpress.com and has been posted here with her permission. All views expressed are her own. Bridget has also blogged for the Guardian.

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