Chris Mould says there needs to be more genuine collaboration between government and the voluntary sector.
What can we learn about the future of the voluntary sector over the next decade from the Trussell Trust’s experience of foodbanks?
First, voluntarism can do things the state cannot do, or do as well, and is not past its sell by date.
The Trussell Trust’s experience over the past decade has been incredibly, heart-warmingly rich. Ordinary people have huge hearts. Many are mind-blowingly generous. Belonging to a local community and helping neighbours in trouble are ideas that mean a great deal to most people. Most will respond positively if they are given a positive, easy-to-use opportunity to act.
So Trussell Trust foodbanks mobilise communities in ways the state never could. All the food provided is donated by the local community: nothing is bought. The majority of our foodbank teams are volunteers, with just a few employed staff. From one successful foodbank in Salisbury in 2004, we now have reproduced that model in 430 foodbanks, operating in 1,200 locations, with over 11 million donations of food in 2013, supported formally by at least 12,000 churches and around 8,000 schools and mobilising at least 4 million individual citizens. Each consciously deciding to take action to help a neighbour in trouble. Most important, our foodbanks provided emergency food for over 900,000 adults and children in crisis during 2013 and the volume of clients continues to increase in 2014.
Precisely because Trussell Trust foodbanks are not statutory, foodbanks can achieve an impact other more formal services cannot. Clients tell us again and again, “this is the first place we haven’t felt judged”. They disclose underlying issues to the volunteers they meet in the foodbank, often things they have not told statutory services. The foodbank volunteers are carefully trained to signpost people they are helping to other local services. That’s why such a high proportion of foodbank clients do not need to return to foodbanks repeatedly. Foodbanks support state services – they are never designed as a substitute.
The preventative contribution to individual and societal welfare is substantial – and it saves the state money too. Evaluation shows our foodbanks prevent crime, family breakdown, housing loss, mental and physical ill health: often changing the way local statutory and voluntary services respond to people in crisis. When a family is driven into homelessness, for example, the costs to the state escalate hugely.
Here’s the dilemma: the government needs foodbanks but it can’t buy what they offer. There’s a delicate eco-system that has to be respected. Donors of time, money and food donate precisely because Trussell Trust foodbanks are not government-funded and the model enables them to engage in a very tangible way. Commission the service, apply performance targets and output or outcome measures and the public will justifiably cry foul: government trying to get something on the cheap, taking advantage of donors’ generosity.
Merciful, non-judgemental, believing in you: these are not phrases anyone would commonly associate with state social security provision. And maybe we should not expect to be able to make the links. Voluntary organisations can justifiably occupy a different and complementary space.
Looking forward, what might we want to see in the future relationship between government and voluntary sector?
First and foremost, respect. Too often government, both local and national, more particularly policy people as opposed to practitioners, have condescension as their default setting. Effective voluntary organisations have something very important to contribute to the shaping of the policy framework that governs how the eco-systems we are involved in operate. We can play as equal partners. The prevailing assumption should be that our contribution will carry weight: period.
The balance of power needs to change. We face the consequences of state-provided services failing, sometimes we put right the problems state-provided services have caused. We have a mutually shared interest in seeing public services improved, over-simplistic policy assumptions challenged and fewer citizens in trouble. To exercise that interest we need an equal place at the table.
Next, infrastructure support. The state should make the context as friendly as possible for well-designed well-evaluated voluntary projects and programmes. The commissioning culture has not helped. We need to see the re-emergence of creative local grant-making and local risk-taking. We need to see questions being asked nationally about how taxation, governance frameworks and asset usage could be re-worked to stimulate the emergence and the growth of sustainable, effective voluntary initiatives.
And, finally we need genuine collaboration between the voluntary sector and the state on the creation of effective, scalable solutions to societal problems. This requires a new framework and a move away from the set-piece world of carefully commissioned research and over-managed consultative processes.
Chris Mould is chair of the Trussell Trust, a growing charity that develops community-based projects tackling poverty and social exclusion. He is also a partner with the Shaftesbury Partnership
- This is one of a series of extracts from a forthcoming book of essays on the future of the voluntary sector, Making Good: The Future of the Voluntary Sector. The collected extracts are available at Civil Exchange.