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July 27, 2011

Sector’s independence must be preserved

One of the crucial strengths of the voluntary sector has always been its independence – not just from local and national government but also from other vested interests such as private sector corporations and grant making foundations.  Many fear that this independence is slowly and imperceptibly being eroded. The Baring Foundation is funding a five year study which it hopes will serve to lay down some defences and even regain some lost ground. The first of five reports has just been published


To see full report click here


Voluntary sector organisations are – rightly – highly valued for their connection and commitment to the people and communities they serve. This allows them to meet real and sometimes previously hidden needs, to speak up without fear or favour and to deliver services in original and effective ways. This independence – of purpose, voice and action – is what makes the voluntary sector special and enables it to serve the interests of those who might otherwise be left without support or a voice because they lack power or influence.

The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector has been established by the Baring Foundation because of continued concerns about that independence. 

Over the next five years, we aim to shed light on how far there is a problem and what can be done about it. We will be looking at independence in general, not just from central and local government, but also from other vested interests, such as private sector corporations or grant-making foundations. Over a number of years, concerns have focused on the potential impact of government funding, as the voluntary sector has delivered more public services and increasingly been funded through tightly drawn contracts. There is the risk that voluntary bodies become mere delivery agents, lacking independence of action or voice and being diverted from their purpose. This requires a sustained commitment to independence when contracts are tendered and funding is offered and accepted.

More recently, the impact of deep cuts in state funding has been of concern. Cuts may leave gaps in vital services, especially for the most vulnerable, and threaten the sector’s abilityto play the more active, independent role the Government appears to envisage in its “Big  Society” initiative. We will also be considering the impact and implementation of changes in government tendering and will be looking specifically at the Work Programme in our first annual statement.

The first responsibility for upholding independence lies with the voluntary sector itself. However, government and all of those who work with the sector also have an important role in respecting independence and providing a supportive regulatory, tax and financial environment.

Ultimately, this leads to stronger services and a healthy democracy. This consultation document invites views and evidence to feed into our report on the state of independence later this year – the first of five annual reports we will publish. To help us in this task, we have drawn up a “Barometer” of independence which asks questions to help us judge how far independence is being maintained and achieved. Please look at these and other points in the report and give us your views by 21 September at

Dame Anne Owers

Chair of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector