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What role for the Third Sector?

7:30pm, Thursday 24 September 2009, Contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for more information.

According to the government what makes the Third Sector distinctive is that it is ‘value-led for public benefit’. In England, the Third Sector is made up of a variety of voluntary and community organisations, both large and small, both lobbyists and service providers - 500,000 operating at a local level, and 140,000 mainly small charities, most of which are reliant on volunteers. Added to this are cooperatives with millions of members, housing associations worth billions of pounds, and social enterprises. Policy-makers are particularly fond of promoting those groups, like social enterprises, that are thought to be the ‘authentic and distinctive voice for residents and service users’, and that can help build community cohesion. But while some groups may be ‘well placed to understand what people want and how their needs can be met’ to what extent do they really represent the communities in which they operate?

For instance, according to the Office of the Third Sector, many of the 17,000 BME groups ‘rely on public sector funding for their survival’. Does their ‘reach and understanding’ mean that they have an important role to play in communities, or does their dependency on State patronage suggest otherwise? A government taskforce recommends that voluntary and community groups work together with business to support communities at ‘risk of fracture due to the downturn’ and so ‘mitigate the impact of the recession by building stronger communities’. In turn, businesses are encouraged to worry about their ‘community footprint’ and to engage in a process of ‘responsible downsizing’ to manage the ‘effects of the downturn on local communities’.

Can the government’s renewed Compact with the sector truly safeguard its independence or is it already too late? What is it about the relationship with the State that should concern voluntary and community organizations? Are they now expected to help manage the economy and people’s expectations too? Should community groups be spending their time developing a ‘business case’ or working to support people in their communities? Should businesses be ‘delivering against community need’ or is this a distraction from the need to generate wealth and engage in productive activity in the economy?