Is the third sector losing its way?

18 Mar 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Mar 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Difficult questions were put to those in community and voluntary organisations at an Imagine! Belfast event this week. When does valid criticism end and self-flaggelation begin? Scope has a look.

Has the third sector undermined itself? Is it now working to serve government, and itself, rather than towards its stated social mission?

Provocative questions were put to the audience at Still in the Business of Doing Good? an event on Monday organised as part of the Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics.

Ulster University academics Markus Ketola and Ciaran Hughes kicked off the debate by going through some of the interim findings of their investigation into the sector in Northern Ireland, as outlined in a report available via the Building Change Trust.

The “partnership and collaboration” model with government – whereby the government funds local organisations to do work it wants – has come under criticism for damaging the sector’s independence.

Indeed, as the précis of the event asked:

As more and more organisations are contracted to deliver government services, the effect this is having on the independence of the community and voluntary sector is becoming increasingly noticeable. While some organisations are beginning to copy the practices of the public sector and look more like an arm of government, others are self-censoring their critique of government in fear of funding cuts. This raises questions about the impact this has on the ability of voluntary and community organisations to effectively do their jobs. This event is a panel discussion between academics and representatives of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, where the findings from an ongoing research project on the topic will be presented, followed by a debate where the focus will be on the following questions:

  • To what extent is the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland still independent?
  • What are the consequences of eroding independence for the sector, as well as for Northern Irish society more broadly?
  • Are there times when the sector stops being in the business of doing good?

Scope itself asked similar questions in an article in January, looking at the same interim report that kicked off the discussion here. Certainly some concern seems merited – but can this introspection go too far?

Necessary difficulties

During the discussion it was noted – as per the interim report - that government is the source for a lot of funding for the sector and, in the past ten years, the nature of this funding has shifted to procurement rather than grants.

Procurement comes at a price, whereas grants clearly allow organisations a certain freedom to determine their own direction.

Procurement also comes with targets which are, to some degree or another, an unrefined way to measure progress on whatever given issue.

These ultimate targets might be set by politicians, who hand the matter over to civil servants – with their own targets – who oversee the work then done by community organisations.

Many of these groups themselves will tend to grow over time, becoming employers and business-like organisations with medium- and long-term visions – which leaves them in hoc to government, as the major source of income, and therefore calls their independence into question.

Chief executive salaries are too high; organisations are businesses in all but name; larger ones are ravenous about tendering and will swoop in for small pots of money that would be better directed to smaller, more local groups; possible criticisms go on and on.

There is also the fear that some groups are effectively do-nothing paramilitary slush funds, whereby criminals get funding to lower their own crime rates, a kind of bureaucratic protection racket.

But the above is a negative, even miserable, view. It is an incomplete line of thinking that assumes no good intentions from anyone at any stage and which could be taken to the absurd conclusion that, because nothing is perfect, there’s no point doing anything.

While there is almost certainly some truth to these criticisms – more or less, depending on the specifics of the organisation – and also some truth, in given cases, to some other criticisms of the sector that does not mean community and voluntary organisations should throw baby out with the bath water and whip itself into self-flagellating inertia.

The procurement system may not be flawless but, at the same time, it is not unreasonable for government to have expectations about the use of funding it provides.

The next mandate, with its apparent move to an outcomes-based approach rather than a focus on the particulars of given processes, could see a natural improvement anyway.

The third sector is a broad church and, in truth, there is no one simple characterisation that fits all groups (just as not all private-sector businesses look the same). Many in the sector will look at the list of concerns altogether and find it bears little or no relation to their daily efforts.

Some people are especially mystified by accusations that people working in non-profits are becoming “too professional”. That is an odd concern.

Fighting back

Andrea Thornbury, from NICVA, was at the event and put forward a defence of the sector.

“This issue, about whether we are not critical enough, is something we need to put a positive spin upon. We are the best we have ever been.

“Issues in the papers around Chief Executives’ salaries quoted the top 20. The average Chief Executive in our sector earns around £46,000 per year and that’s not an awful lot when you think about the number of staff, volunteers and projects that organisations run.

“I actually think the most professional people need to be the ones who work with the most vulnerable in society.

“I hate nothing more than seeing big organisations swooping in for a small pot, for example the women’s sector took a huge hit in education from the Further Education colleges, which is a massive issue in that area for young women looking to get a better education and get better employment but who won’t take up a place in formal education.

“There needs to be a recognition about what we do well.”

The last word came from Ciaran Hughes, one of the academics presenting their results, who themselves admitted to playing devil’s advocate to a certain degree.

“As the person who carried out the research and did all the interviews, I would say this research was only possible because it’s a critically-thinking sector. If it wasn’t we would have had the same narrative over and over again.

“We are of the view now, and I think it’s the sector’s view, that there needs to be a radical consideration of what this partnership and collaborative model means, in particular for the independence of the sector and its ability to speak critically to government.

“That’s important for the broad culture of Northern Irish society.”

The third sector could improve – this will always be true – and probably should improve. It can get better by adapting to the needs of the modern world and a more modern Northern Ireland, but this is true of everyone. Its independence also needs to be fiercely protected, and this will require courage from leaders within.

Self-critical thinking is crucial to all of this and, as Dr Hughes said, a bit of negativity and wariness can be a good thing. It doesn’t seem like the sector is taking itself for granted. The final report from Dr Ketola and Dr Hughes will make for interesting reading.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.