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State and voluntary sector divide is a myth, says Etherington

NCVO Chief Executive Stuart Etherington has called on the voluntary sector to abandon any beliefs in a “mythical age” when the voluntary sector was entirely separate
from the state.

Speaking yesterday evening at London Metropolitan University, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ (NCVO) CEO Stuart Etherington challenged those who reject the idea of any form of relationship existing between the State and the voluntary sector at all.

Mr Etherington described a sector which he believes can campaign and represent
its beneficiaries whilst developing policy in partnership with government and delivering statutory services. It is time he argued to “abandon belief in a mythical golden age when charities and the state had no relationship at all.”


Why your supporters are wealthier than you think... Course by Catherine Miles. Background photo of two sides of a terraced street of houses.

“It is neither realistic nor desirable for the voluntary sector, as a whole to seek to have no form of relationship with government. All too often criticisms of the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector seem to be based in some sort of belief that it was different in the
past – that charity and government were entirely separate bodies and that it
has only been in the last twenty years that the two have started to work together. This of course is simply not true.”

Mr Etherington was addressing charity chiefs, opinion formers and civil servants
at the Annual Lecture of the Centre for Research in Corporate and Marketing
Communication (CERCOMS).

He acknowledged the working with government brought its own risks. Mr Etherington urged voluntary organisations to exercise extreme caution, make maximum use of the Compact and to go into relationships with government with their eyes open. “A close relationship with government is certainly not without risks. What I think is important, therefore, is for those in the sector to be careful about the relationships they forge, and more importantly about how they then continue to manage those relationships.”

Critics of close links between the voluntary sector and government argue that campaigning becomes more difficulty. Mr Etherington challenged this assertion that organisations that help develop policy cannot also campaign. But, he warned that there could be dangers in how such organisations were perceived by their
stakeholders. “This is one of those areas,” he said, “where the difficulty is not that
the independence of the particular organisation is in reality comprised, but
the perception amongst those looking on is that it has been.”

He challenged sceptics of the sector’s closer relationship with government to explain the growth in genuine partnership working in the past few years: “For those who believe that the sector should keep its distance from government, partnership working clearly poses a problem. It seems to me that where the objectives of a particular partnership match those of
particular voluntary organisations, then it is only sensible for those organisations to try to work with and through that partnership.” However, he acknowledged that “many charities and voluntary organisations will never and should
never enter into any financial relationship with Government at either a national or local level.”

Mr Etherington closed by describing his vision of the voluntary sector making a significant contribution to replacing the current disengagement with political life with a new engagement. “The voluntary sector is important because it occupies the space between the state and the private sector. It can help give people a voice, and it can provide a challenge or a counter balance to
political institutions.”