Has the Big Society taught charities to soul search?

There has been an interesting discussion in the Guardian recently about the Big Society and its impact on the voluntary sector. Here's an extract from the blog that Helen, our chief executive, wrote for the paper. You can see the full article here.

Losing our core funding forced us, and many others in the sector, to soul search beyond our normal depths – to ask some difficult questions: "Should we still exist?", "What is our unique selling point?", "What is no one else doing that we are?", or at least "What do we do better than anyone else?"

In the past two years nothing has kept charity chief executives from sleeping more than the question: "Which group of our vulnerable beneficiaries are no longer worthy of our support?"

In the balmy days of funding we thought we asked these questions when we were strategising, but in reality many of us continued to run services that weren't wholly cost-effective and weren't really truly aligned with our mission. Certainly at TimeBank it has forced us to focus on our two core activities: volunteer mentoring programmes to tackle complex social problems, for example young people and ex-servicemen and women with mental health problems, carers, and those not in education, employment or training; and running employee volunteering programmes to empower companies to get their staff volunteering in their communities. We no longer support people generically into volunteering, we no longer help other charities recruit volunteers, we no longer run big campaigns to get people volunteering – all the things we thought were the big society's core aims, because, put simply, we can't afford to. So you could say it has focused the minds of the sector to hone what it does.

Our vision and mission haven't changed but our route to achieving it has – and that doesn't mean that we wouldn't or couldn't pick up those things again should funding come on stream. It just means that right now we are focusing on what we are good at and on our beneficiaries, who are ironically more in need than ever as other public services are cut.

At a Civil Exchange seminar on the Big Society recently we were asked what three things we would change about the big society and how would we reinvent it. These are mine:

 1. Explain what it is

I never really understood the big society beyond a vague concept and I work in the voluntary sector, so how are others supposed to get it? Plus if David Cameron's idea of volunteering is noticing that there aren't enough bulbs in the local village green and rallying the troops to plant some – it's very different to mine, which is that it's a way to tackle complex social problems with a challenging but rewarding volunteering solution. So we need clarity that the big society covers both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

 2. Define it

Create some clear and measurable outcomes so we can see the goal we are aiming towards and prove that we have achieved it.

 3. Fund it

There is a spectacular irony that while it is recognised that volunteers need, more than anything, help and support into volunteering opportunities that suit them and their lifestyle (flexible, interesting, challenging and varied) – the first thing this government did was cut the budget of every single national volunteering infrastructure body.

If I could reinvent it I'd audit and capture the good practice that happens already. There is too much wheel reinvention going on and too many people irritated that the government wants more people volunteering without recognising the numbers that already do. People won't volunteer because they are told to by the government, they need to be engaged and not alienated. I'd encourage and support proper partnership in the sector – get larger organisations to recognise the value of partnering with smaller, more fleet of foot, risk-taking organisations that can benefit from being backed (not taken over) by the process and credibility of larger ones. We need to acknowledge that not everywhere is an Oxfordshire village whose needs are very different to say Hackney. Not better or worse, but different, and as such any volunteering campaign needs to be inclusive.

Finally, learn from past mistakes – the previous government did pump huge amounts of money into the sector and not all of it worked. There is nothing wrong with learning from your mistakes, or indeed other people's.