6 December, 1996
THE VOLUNTARY SECTOR
-- DISSECTING THE GOLDEN GOOSE
by Garth Nowland-Foreman
an essential summary
edited by The Jobs Letter
WITH INCREASED UNEMPLOYMENT and poverty in New Zealand, and a government that has reduced its services and assistance to communities, there is much more pressure on the Voluntary Sector to pick up the pieces.
Over the last decade, however, the Voluntary Sector has been undergoing fundamental structural changes, also brought about by the changing culture of government, and the new approaches to funding community services. The results have been mixed.
Christchurch social policy consultant GARTH NOWLAND-FOREMAN presented a paper on the changing landscape facing NZ Voluntary Organisations, to the 4th Working for the Common Wealth (COMMACT) Conference in Derry, Northern Ireland (Sept 1996).
In this special feature, the Jobs Letter presents an essential summary of Nowland-Foreman's paper, which he subtitled "a Beginners Guide to the Dissection of a Golden Goose".
ON THE CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS
The change in relationship between government funders and voluntary and community organisations is often referred to as the shift from grant-making to purchase-of-service contracting. This shift contains many facets:
— a shift in resources to Maori-run services
— a shift from a submission-based model to needs-based planning
— a reduction in government grants to voluntary organisations
— increasing competition for private funds and volunteers (including from public entities such as schools, hospitals, fire brigades, police)
— and increasing demands on voluntary organisations and reductions in direct government services or assistance.
A number of these changes involve important and desirable principles. These include:
— funding for results rather than interfering in budget line items
— addressing inadequate resources for Maori services
— and distributing available resources in a fairer way.
However, the sudden swing from benign neglect to shaking the voluntary sector by the neck has surprised and disturbed many voluntary organisations. The opportunity for building a durable basis for co-operation - let alone partnership - was lost. And many of the changes are also more apparent in the changed rhetoric than in reality.
ON CONTRACTING FOR SERVICES
Contracting for social services is nothing new. The significant differences are of degree. Contracts are more likely to:
— be in response to government rather than community initiative
— be more specific in their service requirements,
— involve increased counting, accounting and accountability.
In this context "contracting" can be seen as a critical step in a long term trend of tighter government controls over voluntary organisations.
One Australian researcher identities the shift away from voluntary and community organisations being regarded as autonomous representatives of the community and towards being treated merely as convenient conduits for public services - "little fingers of the state" or what an English researcher calls a "shadow state apparatus".
Contracting is frequently linked with themes of choice and responsiveness, but its success depends on rigid specification of funding requirements and greater control over voluntary organisations. This may undermine the very characteristics that make provision by such organisations attractive in the first place. These include:
— an holistic and flexible approach
— able to range across bureaucratic boundaries
— lack of pressure to cream off easier clients
— and clear focus on or commitment to clients and service goals (rather than the procedures or the paper work).
ON THE CHOICES AND THE COSTS
Choices are being made at each step of the funding process. Far too little attention has been paid to these consequences as the new funding technologies have been implemented. For example:
— there are increased administrative or overhead costs for voluntary organisations
— there are increased transaction costs for both voluntary organisations and the government funding bodies
— there is a shift in the focus of control from voluntary organisations to government funders
— there is an increase in the financial risks to which the voluntary organisations are exposed (and a resulting decrease in government funder exposure)
— there are increasing expectations on voluntary organisations to behave competitively.
ON REDUCING ADVOCACY
There is a reduced acceptance of the legitimate role of community organisations in policy and client advocacy. Government funders have clarified that that their funds may not be used for advocacy purposes. There is a reduced capacity for voluntary organisations to independently fund their advocacy functions, especially as agency funds are increasingly required to make up the deficit of tightly defined but only partly funded government priorities. A more competitive atmosphere among community and voluntary organisations undermines the traditional collaborative approaches, particularly to policy advocacy.
ON THE RE-MAKING OF VOLUNTARY ORGANISATIONS
While voluntary and community organisations are private (like private sector businesses) and not-for-profit (like public sector departments). they are neither mini-bureaucracies nor failed commercial enterprises.
Often however they are treated as if they are. Everyone else thinks they know better and (sometimes with the best intentions in the world) want to make the voluntary sector into their image.At times voluntary organisations are berated into becoming more business like -- ironically just at the time when many in the business world are discovering the (commercial) advantages of becoming more community minded.
At other times voluntary organisations are cajoled into being more accountable to government (for government funds) when what is really meant is becoming more like government - in their recruitment practices, in their accounting procedures, in their record-keeping, in their service eligibility criteria, and in a standardisation of the way in which they operate, and so on.
ON WHAT MAKES A VOLUNTARY ORGANISATION UNIQUE
What makes community and voluntary organisations unique is that they are as much about participation as provision; as much about citizenship as service. The voluntary sector can provide an outlet for the expression of community concerns, advocacy for clients or members, an opportunity for people to give time, money and resources to others, and a place to work for change. They are 'voluntary' because people have voluntarily come together. They are an essential part of the fabric of civil society. As a sector that has arisen from the community that helps overcome alienation and market failure, it cannot be remade along either bureaucratic or market principles without destroying its essence.
Volunteers, members and trustees (under various names) are the key distinctive features of voluntary and community organisations, but all too often are regarded as peripheral attributes, if not irritating manifestations of amateurism.
ON A HEALTHY GOVERNMENT AND VOLUNTARY SECTOR
It would be dangerous to idealise community and voluntary organisations and foolish to see the clients of these organisations as mere fodder for community and volunteer involvement, especially if the cost was ineffective services or waste of scarce resources. But it is equally dangerous to overlook the wider roles that a healthy voluntary and community sector can play in promoting a more vibrant and sustainable society.
Effective governments are best at providing uniform or standardised services and entitlements on an equitable basis for all. Effective voluntary and community organisations are best able to include, motivate and involve people. They can provide services shaped to individual needs, from their own value base — which may be religious, social justice or feminist, human rights oriented or based on compassion.
This is the spark that can make the difference in effective voluntary organisations. Their services cannot be standardised without loosing or deeply burying this spark. Governments will make the most out of the contribution of voluntary organisations when this is recognised.
Source — from "Governments, Community Organisations And Civil Society — A Beginners Guide To Dissection Of A Golden Goose" by Garth Nowland-Foreman, 57a Cashmere Road, Otautahi/Christchurch e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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