At the end of the last week, youth volunteering charity vInspired announced that it was going into liquidation. The charity sector was broadly united in its sorrow for what, in its time, was seen as a great new volunteering initative. But few will have been surprised.
The story of vInspired to a great extent tells the story of government's enthusiasm for civil society over the last decade and more. At its height it had an income of over £50m, mostly from the Office for Civil Society, and it was responsible for making grants to grow volunteering across the country. At its close its income was under £10m and it delivered a hodge-podge of projects.
This is not another Kids Company. There is no suggestion of the governance failings or the unconventional practices that plagued that charity.
vInspired has instead been squeezed by a change in government policy and and a failure to reinvent itself in a way that attracted a sustainable level of funding needed to cover costs. Once its central government funding was cut off by the Conservative administration, it was unable to find a sustainable alternative and, sadly, has finally burned through its reserves and admitted defeat.
There’s some good news. Its main programme, delivering National Citizen Service, will continue through vInspired Education - a subsidiary company set up a couple of years ago to run the scheme. And vInspired is hopeful that another organisation will take on its online offering.
Ultimately, this shows two things. First, big government initiatives for the sector with no long-term vision are likely to fail. And second, it's very hard to change people's approach to volunteering, and we aren't there yet.
In the beginning
To understand what happened we have to go right back to the beginning.
In 2006 Chico had a number one record, Tony Blair was the prime minister and the Russell Commission promised to herald a new era of youth volunteering.
The commission, led by Ian Russell, was set up in 2004 by the home secretary, David Blunkett and chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, with a view to delivering a step change in the quantity and quality of volunteering opportunities for young people.
One of the recommendations was the creation of a new charity to deliver its recommendations, and the Russell Implementation Body was established.
It was swiftly rebranded as v, presumably to sound less clinical and more like the sort of the thing young people would want to become involved with, and formally launched in spring 2006.
The new charity was handed around £50m a year under Labour, mainly to distribute to charities that created volunteering opportunities for young people.
But following the general election in 2010 a coalition government came to power which had in mind a different solution to the challenge of getting more young people involved in volunteering: the National Citizen Service.
In its annual report for the year ending March 2010, the charity noted that: “Future reliance on a single stream of government funding for v's activities is neither wise nor sustainable. Hence v has sought, with a good degree of success, to diversify its income across public, private and voluntary sources.”
The following year, it received the last large sum from the three-year government commitment and set aside nearly £10m as a designated fund so that it could secure a legacy for the work it had already completed.
vInspired went from being the charity trusted to build a strategic vision for the future of volunteering to one that delivered services on behalf of the government.
Over the course of six years vInspired burned through its reserves and appears to have had little success in finding alternative revenue sources. Its income exceeded its outgoings in five of its last six years.
In 2014 it piloted fundraising from individuals, raising nearly £6,000 from challenge events. But this is just a drop in the ocean of what it needed to find. And where it does report donations, these are often ‘in-kind’ donations for things like advertising space.
The struggle to survive
vInspried struggled to carve out a role for itself after 2011. It was a body set up to deliver a vision, shorn of the ability to do it.
Despite a glowing impact report in August 2011, which found it had created over one million new volunteering opportunities (a figure it is still quoting on its website), no social groups were underrepresented and that its social return on investment was between £6 and £12 for every £1 spent, the government did not want to continue to support v long term.
The government offered core funding on a diminishing basis in the expectation vInspired would find alternative sources of income.
In a little over ten years its ambition had shifted from one where it was seeking to massively increase the to one where it was delivering a series of disconnected projects.
This includes a charity shop in Manchester, an awards recognitions scheme and target social enterprise projects for young people.
But its biggest project was delivering NCS in the North East. A far cry from the original ambition to open up a raft of different types of volunteering opportunities around the country.
It announced a new or refreshed strategy every couple of years. It changes its name and branding a couple of times, but ultimately struggled to find a niche, and crucially it did not manage to secure core funding from either private or voluntary sources.
Ultimately, this reveals the weaknesses of the Labour government's tactics. The charity couldn't deliver on its original aim once the change of government stripped it of resources and influence. It was also unlikely to genuinely be able to acheive its second aim of securing a legacy for the first three years of its work while it was busy trying to secure finances.
Projects living hand-to-mouth on £50m have the same frailties as those surving on £100,000. Any attempt to deliver a true step-change over the long-term requires those delivering in to have financial security and independence from the government or other funders. It is hard to see how that could happen without some kind of endowment.
Questions to be answered
At the end of last week Twitter was full of messages from charity leaders expressing sadness at the collapse of vInspired. But no one should have that surprised.
vInspired is not the first NCS delivery partner or squeezed children’s charity to collapse and probably won't be the last. To what extent did the government’s focus on pushing through NCS create an environment that made it difficult for youth initiatives to get a look in?
Was its demise inevitable? After the 2010 election vInspired needed to change tack and become a service provider - ultimately it was unsuccessful in this endeavor, was it even sensible to try and reinvent what was essentially a Labour project for a Conservative era?
vInspired’s lack of success in securing alternative funding sources highlights how difficult it can be grow a movement from the top down, with any organisation created and funded out of a political agenda at the mercy of the government of the day. What would this mean for NCS Trust should Jeremy Corbyn win the next election? Would we go back to square one again?
Charities must consider how they can demonstrate to the government that they already have some of the answers and can deliver to avoid repeating this cycle.
Delivering a step change in volunteering
The other thing we can see, in the wake of vInspired's collapse, is that despite the raft of initiatives to use harness the power of technology to unlock a pool of new volunteers online, the ecosytem is still a mess.
Why has volunteering not benefited from the same ‘online revolution’ as fundraising? There have been countless initiatives promising to connect charities with willing volunteers, but none has had the impact on the sector that JustGiving had on fundraising.
There are fewer than 6,000 opportunities currently listed vInspired’s platform. The general volunteering site, doit, has also struggled to secure the ongoing resources that itn needs and when its government funding ran out it was transferred to a social enterprise.
Is this because giving time is different, more nuanced, than giving money? Or is it because the funding has not been there to build and publicise a platform that really works? Or do we need to look for a completely different solution that takes a more proactive approach makes volunteering sound more attractive and less like applying for a job?
My feeling is that it’s the latter. But this will require, investment in both time and money. Are any foundations prepared to but their hands in their pockets and take this on? Or is the charity sector to sit around and hope for some government funding or for the private sector to build it?