Later this month the Policy Press will publish a new book by Dr Linda Milbourne of Birkbeck, University of London entitled Voluntary Sector in Transition: Hard Times of New Opportunities? Ahead of its publication, she shares a few thoughts with us on how we make sense of this latest chapter in the history of the voluntary sector.
This is a challenging time to write about the voluntary sector when discussions about public services and the role of civil society are constantly shifting narratives both in the UK and internationally. Cultures and arrangements surrounding voluntary organisations are rapidly changing, and while the public sphere is being pared back, voluntary organisations, closely associated with ideas of civil society, have, until recently, been expanding; but this is now reversing.
My new book considers changing relationships between the state and the voluntary sector over the last thirty years, reflecting on these changes within the context of the sector’s diverse historical roots and its capacities for adapting and surviving. The history of welfare relationships between the state and the voluntary sector is a long one and its transitions are instructive for understanding both present and future directions. Resurgence of debates around the deserving and undeserving poor in welfare and longstanding social policy research on the damage and distortion caused by marketising welfare are just two examples of the lessons to be drawn from historical comparison.
The book overall questions the extent to which voluntary organisations can remain autonomous and survive the multiple challenges they are and have been facing. Questions about the dismantling of public welfare services, the growing power of markets, incorporation of many voluntary organisations into new public management cultures and practices and their role in civil society are central concerns; and chapters draw on diverse examples, concentrated on small voluntary organisations, to explore these themes. There are examples of organisations seeking to accommodate changes and maximise their competitive advantage but many more embedded in community services and action, critical of external demands and pressures. Such examples prompt a further question around the space for resisting dominant expectations and models of organisation, and whether choices for critical social action will necessarily produce greater voluntary sector fragmentation and a separation from the state and its purposes.
In the UK, the profile of the voluntary sector owes much to shifts in political ideology and social welfare policies over the last half century. While New Labour’s Third Way ostensibly welcomed voluntary sector independence, as offering alternatives to state and market, this relatively privileged position of acting within and outside state is no longer feasible. Those within the sphere of service delivery have already experienced ‘gagging clauses’ such as in Work Programme contracts, and organisations have reported both self-censorship and direct silencing of critical and campaigning voices. While decoupling from state funding also offers freedoms, the choices are starker: in or against the neo-liberal market orthodoxy. Understanding these transitions and re-imagining the continuing space for a distinct and autonomous future for voluntary organisations are key debates for the final chapter. In examining these questions, the book considers not only hard times and new opportunities but also the shifting shapes, alliances, values and feasibility of future voluntary action for social change.