Shine A Light

“Strange and confused”: charities in bed with big corporations

Should local charities help commercial outsourcers maximize their profits from welfare to work schemes? Do we want our relationship with the state brokered by the private sector? A UK charity leader speaks out.

Kevin Curley
25 November 2011

I is not a very know-all giant myself but it seems to me that you is an absolutely know-nothing human bean. Your brain is full of rotten wool”.

You mean cotton-wool,” Sophie said. 

What I mean and what I say is two different things,” the BFG announced rather grandly.


Curley addressing NAVCA conference

When I look back on 40 years of local voluntary action I suspect the Big Friendly Giant has been too much of an influence. I think it’s always a problem when you work in infrastructure. We work for the local community, for the local charities and neighbourhood groups that bring the community together – but we are paid largely by the local state. Sometimes we cannot say what we mean. Sometimes we have to bite the bottom lip and stay quiet. Back in the 80s in Hull if you bit the hand that fed you there would be no more food.

Now of course we have won our seats at the tables. Many of you are on the inside track at local level. But the price may be that you sign up to a collective position – Cabinet responsibility – and you are not free to say what you want to your member organisations or to the media when the meeting is over.

I firmly believe we achieve more at the table inside the town hall than if we stand outside the town hall banging on the door and waving a placard. Although it’s important others do that.


But if we sometimes have to compromise on the means, do we have to compromise on the ends? I hope not. NAVCA’s values and those of our members say: "We will take positive action to challenge disadvantage and discrimination". Last week the Institute for Race Relations looked at life in Stoke on Trent. It described a vicious pattern of attacks which has seen asylum seekers forced from their schools, Mosques defaced, Muslims seriously assaulted, workers in cab firms and takeaways attacked and long standing residents in the city harassed and abused. My good friend Sajid Hashmi knows all this very well because he leads Voluntary Action Stoke on Trent. Jon Burnett, author of the report, says:

"The attacks in Stoke provide the clearest evidence of how moves to accommodate the message of the Far Right in mainstream politics have impacted at local level. The BNP may have lost all their council seats in 2011 but the conditions for ongoing racial violence remain. Stoke is not an isolate but exemplifies a national trend. We need to take heed and act now on racial violence".

Steering a course through this sort of environment in Stoke and many other cities and counties across England will require great skill on the part of voluntary sector leaders. So our shared values base is critically important. They include this belief: "That a strong and independent local voluntary sector is crucial to helping people and communities tackle disadvantage and discrimination."

How do those words match up to the strange confused relationships we now have with the private sector? We have relationships that arise from bad commissioning of services: 300 voluntary organisations, many of them local, subcontracted by private sector companies running the Government’s Work Programme, but very little work is actually being subcontracted. Is this anyway what an independent local voluntary sector should be doing? Helping G4S and A4e to maximise their profits from welfare to work schemes? Do we really want our relationship with the state brokered for us by the private sector?

I was dismayed when Turning Point and Catch 22 – two great national charities – formed a consortium with Serco to build and run two new prisons. Charities – big and small – national and local – must be involved in prisons. Advocating prisoners’ rights. Teaching prisoners to read and write. Helping prisoners prepare to return to the community. But running prisons with the private sector on behalf of the state? That’s hardly "A strong and independent voluntary sector …… helping people and communities tackle disadvantage and discrimination."

A movement

Our values support everything we do and say, help us to steer a course through confused waters, bind us together, underpin our agreement on so many difficult issues that convince me we are a movement and not a network.

Let me define a network. It is an interconnected system of people. By contrast a movement is a group of people with a common set of values who try together to achieve a set of goals. A network contains and captures. That is the nature of a net. That’s how it works. A movement by contrast advances. It takes us to new and better places. It progresses.

Crucially, a network is values neutral. A movement is values based. This is not NAVCA’s networking event. This is a conference of people committed to the National Voluntary and Community Action movement.

When asked what you do for a living you could say: "I work for a local infrastructure organisation." I would like you to say: "I work in a national movement for social progress."

My oldest daughter, bless her, is taking my retirement very seriously. The other week she asked me: "What words would you like on your gravestone daddy?" I don’t mind. At the age of 60 these things need thinking about.

So I could go for: "He ran NAVCA, a national infrastructure organisation for charities." But I would rather go for: "He ran NAVCA. A national movement for social progress."


Today is about Localism. This movement has always been about local. It is a fundamental democratic right of citizens in this country to come together and form groups, associations, trusts and charities. Permission from the state is not required. Regulators are only interested when income hits a certain level. There will never be too many charities. Indeed, there are never enough. 

So when the Government says that it wants local people, community groups, local councillors and local councils to have more responsibility and more rights surely we can only cheer. And indeed I do welcome the Localism Act, just one week old.

NAVCA has always supported the Community Right to Challenge in the Act. This is what the plain English guide says:

"The best councils….. recognise the potential of social enterprises and community groups to provide high quality services at good value….in some places however voluntary and community groups find that they do not get a proper hearing. The Localism Act gives these groups the right to express an interest in taking over the running of a local authority service." 

So, when your local youth organisation is fed up with the way in which the Council runs the youth club you could make a challenge. This must be a good thing. But of course there are dangers. The subsequent procurement exercise could lead to your exclusion – a private company could win the contract or a national charity from out of town. So, you will really need your close relationships with commissioners and a commissioning framework that understands the quality and the value you bring to local services. It’s your job, of course, to get it written. And we’ll need Chris White MP’s Social Value Act.

I have to say though that I am no enthusiast for the stripping away of all central targets and national indicators. In Nottinghamshire the voluntary sector budget has been cut by £1.8m, a reduction of 56 per cent in one year. In Somerset the County Council has cut all funding to local support and development organisations – the first Council to do this. If this represents local freedom and flexibility then give me central controls and regulation any time.

Fifteen months ago now the Prime Minister urged local authorities not to cut funding to the local voluntary sector. He asked them to find their savings elsewhere. Many ignored him. Now at last we have Best Value Statutory Guidance. Just two pages of it – I urge you to print it and keep it with you. It is powerful. It says in relation to the funding cuts:

"An authority should actively engage the organisation and service users as early as possible before making a decision on: the future of the service; any knock on effect on assets used to provide this service; and the wider impact on the local community."

It also says:

"Authorities should make provision for the organisation, service users and wider community to put forward options on how to reshape the service or project."

We don’t have many weapons to defend ourselves against the cuts. But if I were going into a negotiation with local councillors or the local PCT I would have this Best Value Statutory Guidance in my briefcase tucked inside my Guide to Public Law and my Compact (an agreement between public bodies and the voluntary and community sector to improve the relationships for mutual advantage). These days, I’d probably lay them all out on the table in front of me. And smile of course.

So, there is ambivalence in the Government’s attitude to Localism. We must all be vigilant. Let’s make use of the new powers in the new Localism Act but remember how important some central direction and target setting was over the last decade for sustaining a strong independent local voluntary sector.

The cuts

The cuts have hit NAVCA members hard. We think you have lost a quarter of your paid workforce in 12 months: 6,800 posts down to 5,100. in local voluntary organisations 26,000 jobs have gone. The loss of so many people must mean that voluntary groups get less development support, less funding advice. Fewer volunteers are recruited and placed and supported. There will inevitably be fewer opportunities for voluntary organisations to participate in local decision-making and for the voices of disadvantaged groups to be heard and to have influence over the selection of local priorities. All of this undermines our ability to live up to one of our movement’s shared values: "Priority should be given to working with people and communities whose full participation in society is limited by disadvantage and discrimination."

So, we will campaign against the local cuts where they undermine our mission, contradict our values and stop us from supporting people who live with disadvantage and discrimination. We will use the Compact. We will use the Best Value Guidance. We will use public law and challenge local authorities and Primary Care Trusts (like Enfield) that fail to consult and fail to assess impact before deciding to cut.

But we also have a responsibility to make our organisations more resilient. To discover new resources. To ask the local private sector for more pro bono support and more help in kind. To make more use of Gift Aid – sadly neglected by so many local charities. To create the new partnerships and consortia structures which will enable small charities to bid for contracts that are too big for them to deliver alone. To understand and use where we can Community Shares, Social Impact Bonds and other forms of social investment. We are in the circus so we have to be able to ride two horses at the same time. We must protect local statutory investment in the local voluntary sector using every tool at our disposal but we have to build our strength again by unlocking new resources.

The same is true of the grants and contracts debate. We must of course defend grants as a superior method of public funding – and NAVCA continues to lead a national alliance of 17 charities called the Local Grants Forum. But we must accept the reality of contracts and help local organisations to scale up and improve their tendering skills.

A little history

This is a very special occasion for me. I spoke at my first NAVCA conference in 1971 – 40 years ago. Now I speak at my last. So this is an occasion charged with emotion. Here’s a little history. And as with all history it informs how we should live now and what we should do in the future.

I was an unhappy student at York University in 1971. I had gone to University wanting to be an English teacher but changed my mind when I saw what life was like in secondary modern schools. And then I discovered York Council for Voluntary Services — York CVS. In November 1971 an old man died sleeping rough in the City Centre. The CVS organised a survey to find all the people sleeping rough one winter week and I took part. The findings were astonishing and led to a rough and ready night shelter that opened on Christmas Eve and later a permanent night shelter. Just a few months later in autumn 1972 the first of 40,000 refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda began to arrive in England. Around 40 families came to York and York CVS led the complicated work of settling them in. My conversation 40 years ago with two teenage girls who had seen their father murdered in front of them by Amin’s thugs lives with me to this day. Again it was the CVS which helped these hard working refugees to set up the York Association of Ugandan Refugees. The work York CVS did 40 years ago with homeless people and with Ugandan refugees shows our movement at its best.

What a privilege it has been to work for this great movement.

I have worked with the best people from all parts of England. People who will not accept injustice. People who will not accept unfairness. People who know that collective action can achieve so much more than individual action.

People who have the right values working in local organisations with the right values. Care, compassion, commitment to social justice. Ready to tackle prejudice.

But toughness too. The toughness you need to get a night shelter opened against local resident opposition and a nervous Planning Committee. The toughness you need to welcome Asian refugees – can you believe that in 1972 Leicester Council took out national newspaper advertisements warning Asians not to come to Leicester because there were no jobs and no homes for them. So, you all embody the very best of localism. Localism built on the right values. Unchanging values for rapidly changing times. Your values, your confidence, your belief in the potential for independent local voluntary action to transform people’s lives and people’s neighbourhoods. These are great strengths. The cuts will draw blood but no transfusion will be needed. The wounds will heal. And you, your organisation and this movement will be strong and will continue to fulfil its mission.

This is a short version of chief executive Kevin Curley’s valedictory address to the annual conference of NAVCA, the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, on 22 November 2011 in London. The conference theme was 'Localism'. 

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