Etherington: ‘no government will find a vision for voluntary action’

Etherington: ‘no government will find a vision for voluntary action’
Civil Society


The chief executive of the NCVO has questioned whether charities have enough confidence in their ability to deliver change without government support, in his election day letter to the voluntary sector.


Sir Stuart Etherington said that the sector should not wait for government to set a vision for the sector, but should do so itself.


"Government policy, and its implementation, often matter to the people we work with," he wrote.


"But for the sector itself, we must find a way to get on and get through without government, as we so often have. We’re not without power, nor resources ourselves. I wonder therefore if we lack confidence? If so, we shouldn’t."


He wrote of his vision of an “open, independent civil society that builds upon the strengths of all sectors, encouraging and catalysing the energies and resources of everyone in society, always acting in the public benefit, and therefore trusted by the public.


“It is a civil society unafraid of holding to account those with powers speaking up for those without it, and supporting those who want to create their own future.”


He said that, in practice, this means transparent and accountable organisations, and the bridging of the “widening divide” between large and small charities.


Politicians and ‘gimmicks’


Etherington wrote that the sector shouldn’t let the government define it, and that it shouldn’t let “any given party’s idea of how we should be enforced upon us”. He said that although politicians can be “driving forces for change”, at their worst they are “prone to gimmicks, to crowd-pleasing, to relying on simplistic, dogmatic approaches for complex and nuanced issues”.


He added: “In other words, the opposite of what we want for a credible, trustworthy and effective sector in the future.”


Etherington referenced the search for “novelty and quick fixes” in the last government’s enthusiasm for social investment, writing that although it has potential, it “cannot be the answer to everything”.


Visions for the sector


Etherington went on to name a few of his visions for the sector, which includes more “impactful social action, effectively supported by government, business and voluntary organisations”.


He went on to say that any vision for the sector has to recognise that “mechanisms such as payment-by-results, especially in its more crude forms, can hinder innovation”, adding that although it does have a role to play, so does grant funding. He believed that grants are too often seen as a “dull relic of the past: they should be seen as the risk capital of the future”.


Another of Etherington’s visions is one where a “civil society is an important part of the systems of checks and balances on the state”, believing that it should hold the highest standards of transparency and accountability.


Etherington advocated that the sector must change as it effects change around it. He said: “We are now reaping the rewards of the seeds we sowed in previous years’ advocacy. We have a responsibility to those who follow us in our sector. We should ask ourselves, as organisations and as a sector, what seeds we should be sowing for the future.”