VE was formed in 2004 following the merger of the then national association of Volunteer Bureaux (Volunteer Development England), the National Centre for Volunteering and the grant funder for health volunteering, the Consortium on Opportunities for Volunteering. Student Volunteering England was taken over by the new organisation soon afterwards, resulting in a large and comprehensive volunteering infrastructure body, the likes of which had never been seen before in this country.
When VE was formed there was high hope and aspiration for the new body. Volunteering was big business under the last government, with large amounts of funding being made available, and the arrival of a new body with the muscle to both represent and develop what had been viewed by many as a disparate and wooly sector, was an important step forwards. The Volunteer Centre network, grossly under valued by too many for too long, had finally found a body that would ensure they would start to receive the recognition they so badly needed and deserved.
VE has had some critics over the years but generally there has been a clear sense that volunteering has been well represented overall and that through VE it had a strong national sectoral identity that was being seen and heard by the right people, especially in government.
When the Coalition arrived in 2010 there was much talk about volunteering as being integral to the success of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative and initially there were high hopes for the sector. But as the reality of the economic climate hit home it quickly became apparent that despite the need for more volunteers than ever before, government was not able or prepared to continue funding infrastructure at its previous level.
In 2010 the Coalition announced that it would no longer be funding its voluntary sector strategic partners as it had done previously. Many of these were volunteering bodes, including TimeBank, Youth Action Network and do-it. Some fell out of favour in the first round of cuts, and others, along with VE were given notice that the good times would come to an end in three years.
Whilst VE has worked extremely hard to reduce costs and raise new funding, it was perhaps inevitable that time would eventually be called on their ability to survive as an independent charity. There had been rumours of potential mergers with a number of other bodies, including the National Association of Councils for Voluntary Action (NAVCA) whom many saw as a natural fit given that well over half the country’s Volunteer Centre’s are hosted within a CVS, but ultimately NCVO proved to be most attractive partner.
Time will tell if the marriage between the two is happily consummated. NCVO, led by Sir Stuart Etherington, is the largest and most vocal infrastructure body in the country and has an impressive track record of representing voluntary and community action. There will no doubt be some some friction as both agencies get used to each other’s company, though their co-habitation of the same building for a number of years should help the transition. But what is clear is that England will no longer have an independent leader of the volunteering sector. And without such a leader it's just a matter of time before the volunteering sector as we know it disappears.
Is this such a bad thing? For a fiercely independent sector like ours perhaps it is. But given volunteering’s rapid, and some would say overdue, evolution since 2010 into what is increasingly being seen as civil society and informal social action, setting up home with the country’s leading civil society charity may well turn out to be a good move, provided NCVO can ensure that the core values of volunteering are not lost.
The funding climate out there is perilous at best and infrastructure is often seen as something that can be all too easily cut. Mergers may well turn out to be the only way to ensure that volunteering and voluntary action infrastructure is able to survive. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before NAVCA, ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) and others follow the courageous example set by Volunteering England.