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October 13, 2010

Sector braces itself for change

At last week’s big bash of third sector interfaces, CVSs and Volunteer Centres, two key messages seemed to come through. As the austerity measures loom large, the sector has to remain open to the prospect of constant change and for much closer joint working than ever before, including mergers, in order to protect services to frontline communities. Secondly, Johann Lamont MSP made clear that she felt Community Planning Partnerships had so far failed in their primary task of delivering better outcomes for communities

JOINT working, on a level never seen before, is the only option facing the voluntary sector as austerity measures loom, a conference has heard.

But this strategy will present more opportunities than ever before and could lead to a stronger more resilient sector able to adapt and withstand change.

The new third sector interfaces, organisations created from the formation of CVSs, volunteer centres and social enterprises, were told at their annual conference this week they face challenges ahead and that new partnerships with local authorities and the voluntary sector would not mean a loss of independence but increased opportunities to change communities for the better.

In a cross party discussion with Labour MSP Johann Lamont, Gavin Brown of the Scottish Conservatives and voluntary sector representatives, delegates were told that the funding crisis meant voluntary groups could be in a better position to show how well they could run services, especially if they were already involved in joint initiatives such as interfaces.

However, Johann Lamont said the current economic climate combined with changes in the way the voluntary sector engages with government should not divert from helping individuals and communities.

“There is a danger we get wrapped up in too much technical detail and forget about who we are actually supporting,”

“Changes to the way voluntary organisations operate, whether through mergers or interfaces, must serve the purpose intended – namely to help the communities and individuals they serve.”

The conference heard that relationships among interface organisations were still being forged with some still at a tentative stage.

It did, however, offer a model as a way forward as funding cuts necessitated new relationships between voluntary groups.

This was also true of the Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) which Lamont said were not as effective as the Social Inclusion Partnerships they replaced.

“The idea was good but the practice is something different,” she said. “We have the structure but not the intent to actually deliver to communities.

“Let’s not forget that this is all about empowering communities, giving people the ability to make decisions for themselves, to allow them to spend their money how they wish. That has so far not proven to be very effective under the CPP model.”

Harriet Eadie, director of the Edinburgh Volunteer Centre, said new ways of working meant voluntary groups had to influence the agenda by forging new relationships with all key partners.

“We bring to the table an expertise and knowledge that no-one else has so we have to show how that can be used to the best advantage,” she said. “There’s an opportunity here for us not just to contribute but to lead. We should take that opportunity.”

The two day conference, held in Glasgow, was the second national conference for Interfaces organised by the CVS and VC Networks.

Mai Hearne, chief officer of the Angus Association of Voluntary Service, issued a warning for the sector, saying it should not be so worried about disappearing budgets as disappearing people if predictions on the austerity measures to be taken by the government were to be believed.

“People will be leaving our communities while we are still sitting in ivory towers discussing the issues,” she said.

“We need to invest more in people, in community activists and those who go the extra mile to make their communities better. Without them the voluntary sector won’t be able to deliver, no matter how much money we are given.”

Paul White, SCVO director of Networks, praised delegates for contributing to the event, saying it was a unique way of hearing the views of the sector, especially during a period of change.

“Organisations are facing massive challenges over the next year and this event provides an opportunity to hear how they are facing up to these.

“Despite these challenges we have also heard how organisations are flourishing through being innovative in their approach to new ways of working and there’s also optimism that they can achieve much through forging new partnerships.”