Third sector has a chance to change its relationship with government

16 Feb 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Feb 2021

NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey
NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey

Charities, departments and the civil service could work together better. NICVA’s new manifesto is a great starting point for developing a new relationship – and is out for consultation.


Short-term and long-term approaches have different dynamics.

Charities facing a funding squeeze tend to prioritise immediate community needs – i.e. frontline services – over the health of their own organisation.

That is an understandable decision. However, in the long-term there is no such choice. An organisation that is in better shape will tend to deliver better services. Those better services will lead to improved communities.

What starts as a dilemma becomes, over time, something more harmonious. Nevertheless, as long-term approaches usually fail to produce immediate results a balance needs to be struck.

This logic scales upwards, applying not just to individual organisations but to the third sector as a whole. It also scales outwards. The same principles can apply in the private sector. They certainly do apply to public services.

NICVA has just launched a consultation, Manifesto for Change - Unlocking the Full Potential of Voluntary and Community Action in NI, looking at “how government can work with the sector to unlock the full potential of community and voluntary action in Northern Ireland.”

The document was prepared at the request of the Minister for Communities, so it should play an important role in future policy.

It is a must read for anyone interested in civil society. And NICVA is calling for feedback from across the third sector to help develop a better future for NI.

Long-term view

The document is fundamentally one with a long-term vision. This is true on many levels.

Its first paragraph says: “The emergence of the current Programme for Government and its outcome-based focus is based on the realisation that Northern Ireland needs major policy transformation.  It is also based on the acceptance that this change will not be achieved in a three-year budget cycle.  The impetus for change is also driven by the notion of a ‘burning platform’ upon which NI policy and public services sits.  The do-nothing option is clearly the worst option”

Northern Ireland has significant, stubborn problems. Solving these will take time – long-term planning is required.

Solutions will also rely on the third sector. The paper sets out some ideas for reform that can help community and voluntary organisations become more effective over time. It offers some solutions for how individual organisations, and the sector as a whole, can move beyond its own (often necessary) short-termism.

Northern Ireland’s government is not the only thing sitting on a burning platform. Many third sector organisations – good organisations that do great work – live in a scenario of perpetual short-term challenges.

That is not conducive to long-term planning. Yet, if anything, Stormont has traditionally suffered more from short-termism than the local third sector.

The lack of multi-year budgets, departments working in silos, and a body politic that often seems to consider the functioning of Northern Ireland as a concern that is secondary to other political battles have all been issues.

And, while departmental strategies often exist over five- or ten-year periods, that does not necessarily mean they have a true long-term vision. As NICVA’s consultation document notes: “One to even three-year commitments to projects that renew, even for 10 years, is not a 10-year plan.”


NICVA suggest three keys to unlocking the potential of community and voluntary action:

  1. Improving Government Understanding and Policy on the Role and Contribution of Community and Voluntary Action
  2. Unblocking Key Barriers and Creating a Supportive Environment
  3. Valuing the voice of community and voluntary actors and civil society

Key 1 calls for the creation of an Executive policy aiming to maximise the social benefits provided by the third sector. This should recognise that community and voluntary organisations do not exist in a bubble, or only effect certain groups – but instead it “touches every aspect of society here”.

Such a policy should be developed with a review mechanism, and involve the sector at large. A ten-year strategy should be developed, alongside the Programme for Government, to harness the potential of the third sector.

Underpinning all this – to ensure it works – should be efforts to make sure government and charities understand each other better.

“NICVA should work with government to develop a Guide for government officials to help them understand work with voluntary and community organisations and complementary guidance for voluntary and community organisations on how government operates to help organisations engage effectively.”

Key 2 suggests a number of structural reforms that could help organisations flourish. These include modernising funding models, reducing bureaucracy where it is more a burden than a steer towards good practice, and government “should review the legal requirements placed on voluntary and community organisations with a view to reducing undue burdens and disincentives to voluntary action.”

NICVA says such a review should not just look at potential changes, but also be a re-affirmation of existing measures that encourage voluntary action (such as rates relief).

Key 3 is about recognising the expertise and experience of individual organisations and the third sector as a whole, and using this to help shape public policy.

This should be a no-brainer but the Lobbying Act was an effort to sever the link between people tackling social issues and the ability to advise on how those issues could be solved.

NICVA believes “measures need to be taken to ensure not only that policies and legislation create an encouraging environment for voluntary and community voices to be heard and to inform public debate and government policy, but also that the guidance for government proposed under Key 1 above, includes guidance on the value of the voluntary and community sector’s role in challenging, informing and reflecting the impacts of public policies.”

The ideas put forward by NICVA are interesting. They are a great starting point for reframing – and improving – the third sector’s place in Northern Ireland.

Now it is up to other voices to get involved.

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