By Carl Cooper.
Lewis Carol’s Humpty Dumpty famously said, “When I use a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean, no more and no less.” What do we mean when we use the word ‘Voluntary’? The answer would probably make reference to a service that is given without remuneration and motivated by altruism. However, this is not how the word is used when we speak of the ‘Voluntary Sector’. Here it means ‘Non-Government’ or ‘Non-Statutory’. In other words, it refers to the vast number of not-for-profit organisations that serve communities and provide services the length and breadth of our land. We have come to call this sector, ‘the Third Sector’.
There are currently around 30,000 such organisations in Wales ranging from small community groups run entirely by volunteers to large bodies that deliver many statutory and discretionary services on behalf of the public sector.
Volunteering plays a significant part in the lives of individuals and communities. 77% of adults in Wales give their time to help friends or neighbours or help with activities within an organisation. If we had to fund the contribution that volunteers make to public services and to the social fabric of Wales, it would cost the tax payer at least an extra £53 million per year.
Third sector organisations are often offer much better value for money than other sectors because of the added value they bring. This added value is multi faceted e.g. social, cultural, personal, physical. However, it also has an economic dimension. One example among many is transport. There are 17 Community Transport Schemes in Powys. Our very large and deeply rural context means that access to services is notoriously difficult and many people rely on their local dial-a-ride or taxi card scheme to get to surgeries, hospitals or to go shopping. It has been demonstrated that, due to the contribution of volunteers and the funding drawn down from other sources, Powys receives £1.3m worth of service via such schemes. The local authority’s contribution is £112k. This 12:1 return on investment is almost miraculous by anyone’s calculation!
The Third Sector impacts significantly on Wales’ economy. There are an estimated 46,500 people employed in the sector. This compares to 164,000 people employed by local government in Wales and 71,000 by Wales’ Health Boards. The sector generates an income of over £1.2bn and over half of this comes from sources other than the public purse.
When we began to become more aware of the economic crisis and the way in which irresponsible behaviour within the banking sector had plunged us into a recession, we were also told that the banks were ‘too big to fail’. Unimagineable sums of money were found to secure the sustainability of banks. Surely, a similar cry needs to be heard regarding the Third Sector in Wales? The third sector is too important to take for granted! As money becomes tighter due to continued austerity measures, it will become increasingly tempting to adopt a siege mentality whereby statutory bodies retrench and focus exclusively on providing statutory services. This would be short sighted and self defeating. It is crucial that partnership and collaboration are strengthened and not seen as an unaffordable optional extra. It is arguable that, in these cash-strapped times, Wales needs the third sector like never before!
The third sector has a proven and distinguished track record in providing innovative, efficient, citizen-focused services. It has contributed significantly over the years to the identification of need and to the recognition of gaps in services. Wales has an opportunity to work with the sector in order that we might bring to bear upon our austerity-hit nation the distinctive contribution that the sector offers. If involved effectively in the planning and shaping of services, we can be a creative and stimulating part of the solution and not simply a supply chain or a set of organisations with which others consult regarding the impact of decisions made elsewhere.
The truth of the matter is that we have all bought into a dependency culture. We look to statutory bodies like local authorities and central governments to meet our needs. It is already true that the public sector cannot deliver against this kind of expectation. This will become increasingly true as public finance pressures get greater following the outcome of the EU referendum. We need to foster ‘can-do’ communities. The public sector should develop as a commissioning sector, but delivery should be left to those best placed to deliver. The third sector has consistently demonstrated its worth in this regard. More and more, if we are to become resilient, the public sector needs to be willing to let go of public services.
Carl Cooper is Chief Executive Officer at Powys Association of Voluntary Action (PAVO)