Roundtable: Challenges facing voluntary organisations

How to fully cost its services, learn commissioning skills and develop its trustees – our roundtable discusses issues charities need to address
Care assistant with elderly resident
Charities and voluntary organisations will take on more responsibility for some public sector care services. Photograph: Third Avenue

The voluntary sector will play an increasing part in the delivery of public services – whoever wins the next election. But do charity and voluntary organisations, which between them employ around 2% of the UK's workforce, have the right skills to take on this challenge? This was the issue at the heart of a recent roundtable debate hosted by the Guardian, and sponsored by Skills – Third Sector, the charity responsible for developing skills in third sector organisations.

There was a widely held belief during the discussion, which was held under the Chatham House rule (where comments aren't attributed to encourage frank, open debate), that the third sector had a unique contribution to make to public services. It was agreed it could improve social justice and outcomes for service users. But there was concern that a lack of investment in leadership and the need to get to grips with commissioning could loosen its foothold on public services.

While the private sector has a good record in developing leadership, and the public sector has been investing in its potential leaders, the third sector has been slow to follow. One speaker said: "It's 2010 and we have just started to talk about leadership development." Another added: "There is very little career development for people who aspire to be leaders – who are already demonstrating that they have potential for leadership."

Skills gap

One of the problems is that the focus of leadership development is on achieving MBAs and other professional qualifications, over the skills that potential leaders learn informally from their organisations. One participant said: "We aren't very good at acknowledging and valuing the skills we are developing, and translating that into language that a future employer might recognise."

Participants were also concerned that some smaller organisations might lack the necessary skills to successfully compete for public sector contracts against the larger, more professionally developed charities. This might tempt trustee boards of these smaller organisations to bring in staff with commercial skills – who may not share the same values as the organisation – in order to win contracts. But another speaker pointed out that the need for private sector skills did not mean privatisation.

Competition for contracts, however, has an impact on staff development, the roundtable was told. One speaker revealed how his organisation was having to increase staff's contracted hours to be able to compete more successfully for large, public sector contracts. "The issue is, how do you reduce your hourly costs and stay competitive, but at the same time contain and develop the best possible workforce?" There was a tension, admitted one participant, between competing for contracts and the values of the organisation, which can sometimes feel "counter-cultural".

Another factor that influenced the third sector's ability to compete for public sector contracts was the practice of some local authorities of employing outside private contractors to price a service. One speaker said: "These consultants are going into residential services ... They work things out on a spreadsheet and then say to the local authority: 'This is what you should be paying for this service.' It's appalling." But voluntary organisations will still pro- vide the same level of service – even if they have to do it at a lower price – their incentive comes from the values of their organisation.

He added that the sector had to work together to put a stop to this more mercenary approach. "The more we work together, the more impact we can have with the commissioners."

A question of commercial nous?

Another speaker believed the sector's inability to understand the true cost of a service was one of its weaknesses in winning contracts. "Our skills about understanding the full costs of what we are doing is the problem – and that is where some of our under-investment in developing people lies," she said.

Another question was how can the sector continue to invest in its volunteers, while at the same time be expected to create a more professional workforce to compete for contracts? The roundtable heard that 70% of third sector organisations consist entirely, or almost entirely, of a volunteer workforce. One participant said: "People assume that volunteers are a 'free good' – they are not." It was easier, from a practical point of view, to develop paid employees than volunteers who may be less available to attend courses during the week when they are working.

And while the recession may have led to more people volunteering, it did not necessarily mean that organisations were getting the people with the right skills, the roundtable was told.

Trustees, according to one speaker, were the sector's most valuable group of volunteers – even if, as some felt, they were often risk-averse. The issue, according to the debate, was how to support and find the time to help volunteers such as trustees to develop?

Attracting the right trustees

While there was some acknowledgement that some charitable boards were "terrific", there was also some criticism of the calibre of other trustees. One speaker argued that the sector as a whole had to take some responsibility for making sure it had the kind of trustees it wanted. It had to increase the profile of trustees, promote the skills needed for the role and publicise the rewards that being a trustee can bring.

Charities and voluntary organisations also fail to get across that these new skills can boost personal development and be used by the trustee in their own workplace. "If we were better at accrediting people at what they were doing when they're volunteering that would help hugely," one participant explained. It was also important, according to another, to recognise that some volunteers have been service users and eventually go on to be part of an organisation's paid workforce.

As the third sector takes on more public services, it needs a workforce skilled at being able to negotiate contracts successfully – to show it can "navigate" across different sectors, according to one participant. It was equally important to show the sector can offer something extra – such as advocacy and campaigning skills.

The sector also had to get across the message that success at the contract table should not be dependent on bringing in people with a commercial background who had no experience of the care sector but "could deliver a bottom-line profit". "We need people [in the sector] with an understanding of both the politics and that we are in the business of social change and social development" one participant said. "We are not simply a group of people delivering services."

That is the crucial message, and perhaps the key challenge facing the sector in the coming months, it was agreed. As one participant summed it up: "We should be arguing the point that by buying this service it will save you 'x' amount of money, but it will also deliver a better service and that is why we are better. And that is one of our biggest challenges."

Focus of the debate

The charity sector will be expected to provide more public services whichever party is in power after the next general election. But it will have to improve the skills of its workforce if it is to deliver, especially at a time of the most severe public spending cuts for a decade. The sector has the opportunity to bring added value to public services which benefit service users and boosts social justice. But it requires more investment in developing its home-grown leaders and volunteers – especially trustees – and it needs to learn the commissioning skills it requires in order to realise its expectations.

At the table: Jane Dudman, (chair) editor, Guardian Public; Richard Hawkes, chief executive, Scope; Margaret Lally, director of UK operations, British Red Cross; Jane Slowey, chair, Skills – Third Sector; Benet Middleton, director of communications and regional development, The National Autistic Society; Emma Jane Cross, chief executive, Beat Bullying; Mike Martin MBE, chair, Navca; Dame Mary Marsh director, Clore Social Leadership; Alison Seabrooke, chief executive, Community Development Foundation; Elaine France, project director, Local Partnerships; Julie Wilkes, chief executive, Skills – Third Sector

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