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Time to change?

22 May 2013

Peter Kyle, Deputy CEO at ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations outlines the challenge faced by the voluntary sector to adapt to new realities.

The last decade or so has been one of dramatic change in much of the voluntary sector, to the extent that the debates of ten years ago now seem almost quaint by comparison to today’s challenges. Should the sector engage with public sector commissioners, explore opportunities in public service delivery, and become more entrepreneurial and businesslike in its approach to income generation? Or should it refuse and maintain the purity of isolation? Rapid evolution in the economic, policy, and political environments have largely rendered this argument obsolete. It’s clear that the sector must continue to engage with partners in both the private and public sectors, and seek out new opportunities – often commercial – and fresh forms of investment in order to thrive in this era of spending restraint and competition in almost all areas of social support.

So where next for the sector? It’s clear that opportunities will continue to arise to leverage the skills, expertise and community connections of charities in order to improve standards of public service delivery. The Ministry of Justice’s forthcoming reforms to rehabilitation services, which aim to encourage a diverse range of providers including those from the voluntary sector, are just the latest example of the growing interest in exploiting the sector’s skills in order to increase the value and effectiveness of welfare provision.

While by no means suitable for all voluntary organisations, public service contracts can provide the opportunity for charities to reach a wider range of beneficiaries and generate new sources of income. To make the most of these opportunities, however, requires skills and capacity in areas that are not necessarily traditional strengths of the sector, for example around bid writing, contract management and risk evaluation. Acevo is currently working with a number of organisations and consortia to help develop these capabilities and enable charities to stay ahead of the curve.

In addition, the growth of social investment provides further opportunities for the sector. Initiatives such as the Cabinet Office’s social outcomes fund have increased the profile of forms of investment that seek both a social and financial return. By developing their impact measurement capacity and their ability to articulate the social benefits of their work, charities can improve their ability to access alternative forms of investment and adapt to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Some of these developments may sound alien or intimidating. But remember ten years ago when the question was, ‘shall we change and go for contracts or stay the same?’. Today that is no longer an option and the question has become, ‘are we changing at the right pace and in the right way?’, and those not thinking about the answer should start looking for icebergs in the icy waters ahead.

Dr Peter Kyle – Deputy CEO of Acevo –