Illustration showing main points of discussion from event on Civil Society Futures held on 28 August

Anna Fowlie, Chief Exectutive at SCVO reflects on the Civil Society Futures Scottish Conversation

Photo of Anna Fowlie, SCVO Chief Executive

Anna Fowlie, Chief Executive of SCVO 

The recent Civil Society Futures event chimed with SCVO’s work on What’s a modern charity? Of course the term “charity” is shorthand for voluntary organisation because the terminology is so impenetrable. That’s a whole other conversation.

There have been voluntary organisations for over a hundred years and the sector has been known for its ability to adapt and grow to meet changing societal needs. There have always been gaps that neither the public sector nor the private sector can fill. What’s unique is that the people who run these organisations don’t do it to make a profit, nor do they do it because it’s a statutory responsibility. They do it because it makes a difference to people and communities, often on a voluntary basis and often where the motivation is overcoming significant disadvantage.

What intrigues me is that while these things often begin as a movement, or a random group of people getting together with a passion for a cause, we then turn them into organisations or services. That brings all the trappings of governance, regulation, structures etc. Most of that is for good reason; it safeguards the beneficiaries and the people doing the work and of course it generates funding. But does it stifle the original passion? Are we corralling passion and commitment into an outmoded shape? And why do we feel the need to mould innovative action into traditional structures?

I think this has a lot to do with funding, especially funding that comes from the public sector. Government and local government both make demands of voluntary sector organisations, regardless of their scale, which are very cumbersome and risk averse. It’s particularly ironic that local government passes on the strictures it complains about from central government. To get funding, you have to fit certain perceptions and are often subject to disproportionate monitoring. We all know that this is to mitigate the risk of a someone running off with the cash, or a tabloid scandal headline but we’ve created a system to address the tiny minority of “baddies”.

Maybe it’s time to reimagine what the voluntary sector is and how it’s organised. For example universities and private schools are charities. Arms length organisations like leisure trusts are charities. But are they what most of us would regard as voluntary sector? Young people are very active in campaigning and volunteering in their local communities. They just want to do stuff that brings about positive change. We’re living in a digital world where people can communicate, organise and agitate across the world and regardless of traditional silos. Surely there must be a new way of harnessing all that passion, energy and skills?

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