What does the future hold for the sector?

16 Sep 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 16 Sep 2016

A major piece of research on the future of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland is shortly to get underway. 

Commissioned by the Building Change Trust (BCT) and funded by Big Lottery it will examine the key issues facing the sector over the next ten years.

Nigel McKinney director of operations at the BCT said: “We were set up in 2008 for 10 years so this will be our legacy project. It might have been tempting to go into self-congratulatory mode – pulling together case studies of successful projects and the like - but that would be to look backwards. Instead we want to build on what we have done so far and look at its relevance for the future.

“A truly impactful legacy of the Trust will be that the sector, its funders and policy makers consider and identify key issues facing the sector and develop and deliver resources and support together.”

The BCT was set up in 2008 and received £10 million in funds from the Big Lottery. Its purpose is to help develop the voluntary and community sector and its work is focused in five key areas entitled: Collaboration, Social Finance, Inspiring Impact, Social Innovation, and Creative Space for Civic Thinking.

Its research on the future will not be carried out in isolation. The London-based think tank New Philanthropy Capital has recently launched a State of the Sector research programme and BCT is in talks to explore how they can work together; the Baring Foundation is also undertaking futures research. BCT will also be able to build on both NICVA’s State of the Sector report which was published last month and the seminal analysis The Future of Doing Good which was commissioned by the Big Lottery.

The fact that so much research is being undertaken into the future of the sector is no co-incidence. Massive political and economic changes are underway: changes that not all will survive. These are exacerbated by uncertainty over the impact of Brexit and future austerity measures, which political observers regard as inevitable.

One of the most important issues is also one of the most divisive: the extent to which the independence of voluntary sector organisations is compromised by a widespread and increasing reliance on public sector funding, both via grants and delivery of contracts.

The debate on this issue is becoming more heated and toxic, and not just because services are commissioned on the basis of what civil servants decide is required, rather than necessarily what communities say they want or need, but also because of the wider political ramifications.

Competitive tendering processes, especially when weighted as they often are in terms of cost, can result in a “race to the bottom”. This not only means that contracts can be awarded to the cheapest, rather than the best, but can also lead to mission drift, where organisations compete for “business” and lose focus on the communities they serve.

As austerity bites and public spending contracts voluntary and community organisations are looking to improve financial resilience, some by starting social enterprises. There is a huge debate to be had over the future financing of the sector. New models will require strong, innovative leadership and collaboration on a level not seen before. It will also require new thinking from civil servants and commissioners.

However competitive markets lead inevitably to competition whereby organisations who work in a similar space see each other as rivals rather than collaborators, and it will take great courage to break away from this.

Some will fall by the wayside, and others will revert to “survival mode” and lack the basic resources to innovate and therefore adapt to what is a rapidly changing environment.

BCT’s project is still in an early planning stage but it expects that these will be amongst the key themes that will be explored in the ultimate report:

  • The future financing of the sector
  • Sector leadership in the 2020s and beyond
  • Independence
  • What next for collaboration

If the report contains even some sound solutions to these vital issues, it will be a fitting and important legacy to what has been an innovative and exciting programme in changing times.



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