NCVO and VE in formal talks about merger
Ever since the coalition decided to phase out funding for its strategic partners, the writing was pretty much on the wall for those organisations who were heavily reliant on state funding, such as VE. The cuts in spring 2011 were necessary but it was inevitable that further cuts would come and, from my view as an former director of the organisation, the time would come when merger would become inevitable.
NCVO is the natural choice and not just because VE currently shares their building. They are perhaps the best capitalised of all the national sector infrastructure bodies and so their sustainability, even through tough times like these, is pretty much secure. Similarly they cover a range of areas in their work - infrastructure, leadership, funding, training and development etc. - and so the fit with volunteering, which crosses all fields and sectors, is a good one.
What is sad to see in the coverage of the story by the media, is, yet again, the complete absence of an reference to VE's formation back in 2004. Way before anyone else thought it was a wise thing to do, well ahead of merger becoming a topic of open conversation in the sector, before ChangeUp even, VE was born from the merger of the other organisations. Not because funding was tight or diminishing, but because those organisations felt it was the best thing to do to move volunteering forwards in England. In fact the Charity Commission still use VE's creation as a case study of good practice on their website.
Of course in 2007 VE undertook another merger, this time with Student Volunteering England, a piece of work I have the privilege of leading.
So merger is to new territory for VE or indeed for NCVO.
What might the implications be?
Well one potential downside is the loss of a unique voice for volunteering. Volunteering is not confined to the voluntary sector, it happens in the public and private sectors too. That's why the term volunteerism is sometimes used as an alternative to voluntarism - the former denotes any area where volunteering happens, the latter speaks to anything concerned with the voluntary sector. There is a great article by Susan Ellis that explains the difference better than I can.
VE becoming a part of NCVO does risk, if not carefully managed and monitored, the voice of volunteering being lost within wider sector debates.
Another way of looking at this though is that the potential merger might well put volunteering at the heart of some key voluntary sector debates.
I am on record as being frustrated that the sector's response to the current and future challenges it faces, especially in terms of funding, has been to try strategies from the past to solve problems of the future. So we see organisations desperately trying to raise more money from a society that has less to give. We see frantic campaigns to protect income for the few rather than efforts to help organisations adapt to the new reality.
Volunteering needs to be a part of the solution for the sector. Volunteering is changing as the people who volunteer change and the society in which they live - and so the context in which they give their time - changes. In my view, organisations ignore this at their peril. Perhaps VE becoming a part of NCVO will enable volunteering to take a central, indeed its rightful, place at the heart of the sector's thinking about how it survives and thrives in future. This word be especially useful if volunteering retains a clear policy voice that becomes properly integrated within NCVO's policy and campaigning work.
Where might the proposed merger leave volunteer management?
To be honest, this has been one of the less developed areas of VE's work. Since it was created, the section of VE's membership with the loudest voice has been the volunteer centres and so volunteer management didn't get much of a look in. Of course some good work got done, not least the work Capacitybuilders funded in 2010/11 as part of the last governments dedicated volunteer management funding.
In reality though it is AVM and, more recently, the superb work of Voluntary Action Warrington that has been pushing forward the volunteer management agenda in England.
So I'm sure there are opportunities for NCVO to get more involved in the volunteer management arena but it has to be in a way that complements the good work already happening, not seeking to duplicate or replace it. Knowing NCVO as I do I don't think that would happen, but the point needs making in case others are looking at that territory with hungry eyes.
Where does the proposed merger leave Volunteer Centres, especially as most are now a part of local Councils for Voluntary Service (or similar) and so are run by members of NAVCA?
Well, I did note that one of the VE trustees who has been involved in the discussions with NCVO is Tessa Willow of VC Liverpool. I have a lot of time and respect for Tessa and in my view she is one of the best possible people to be representing the VC network in these discussions. So VCs should, as much as possible, be assured by that.
However, there are inevitable questions about the future of VCs within VE. Is now the time for NAVCA to make a play for VCs, bringing them formally into the fold, linking them with their developing quality standards and advocating for them as a distinct voice of the sector?
As with the rest of this news, I guess only time will give us the answers.
Finally, and most importantly I want to go on public record as saying that my thoughts are first and foremost with colleagues at friends at VE as they face another period of uncertainty and change. Good luck guys.
So, over to you.
What are your thoughts on the proposed merger?
Let's hear what you think
One of the issues as to why Volunteer Management still struggles is that it hasn't really been taken on board by the two big players in the sector - NCVO and ACEVO. Whilst it's great for Government to see it's value, as we started to see under the previous administration, actually it's organisations that will make the difference, and in particular CEOs and trustee boards.
As many VMs know trying to influence up in their own organisations is incredibly difficult, it needs the influence coming back down from ACEVO and NCVO - as a pincer movement - to be effective.
So for me, this is where it could be great news. If a proposed merger means that NCVO 'gets' volunteer management, that it becomes integral to the messages it pushes out we could see the step-change in support for volunteer management we desperately need.
There's a big opportunity here - we need to ensure we make the most of it.
Thanks for this analysis. As someone relatively new to the scene it's good to hear from someone with experience of the organizations involved. I was lucky to get through the last Excellence in Volunteer Management course with a Capacity Builders bursary. I tried to be optimistic about how Big Society would help us in the volunteering world but have been considerably disappointed. I hope the merger goes smoothly and out of it comes renewed strength and vigour.
Not sure if this is good or bad news...perhaps time will tell? I guess it largely depends on what you think is behind the decision...informed wisdom i.e.volunteering being better represented in a larger, more 'powerful' organisation, NVCO having a good track record in dialogue with Government etc...or, political expediency i.e. cuts, a case of merge or disappear anway, for VE?
I do think it looks precarious for volunteer centres. My own view is that while they may have six core functions, they basically do two things - help people volunteer and help organisations work with volunteers. After some ten years and a bit, I think VE have finally honed the VCQA so it accurately reflects what I think most people that I have met in the volunteering sector, think that a VC does and should do - if that were to be replaced by (presumably wider) NAVCA, or other quality standards I am not sure where that leaves volunteer centres?
Just what would staff with specific responsibilities for volunteer brokerage and assisting voluntary groups with good practice in volunteer management , all working within a independent volunteer centre do?
Well, the brokerage could be picked up by YouthNet via Do-It (and quite why volunteer centres are still involved, or allowed to still be involved with Do-It, I don't know?! - it takes VC's a lot of time to process applications and potential volunteers using it online have to wait 4 working days, or whatever it is, rather than getting the contact details of the organisation they want to volunteer with straightaway ONLINE - explain that in terms of customer service anyone?!) , or as it is now, by the groups themselves and advice on volunteer management could be catered for by small groups, or community development workers employed by the council for voluntary service.
For the firing-on-all-six-core-functions, accredited (independent) volunteer centre, I don't really see what's left? Perhaps their only remaining specialism is what I have been feeling for some time - effectively supported volunteering - seeing people face-to-face, investing in spending time with people who need real help to get into volunteering, people who wouldn't do it otherwise - and who in a truly substantiated way across a network of volunteer centres, is going to fund that?
While I really liked for example, Westminister VC's shop front, if there is no discernable national body whose role is to, among other things, accredit the work volunteer centres do, or a ('new)national body using a wider, less specialised set of accredited functions that are applicable to VC's, then surely you don't need the volunteer centre in any other format than a couple of desks in the corner of a CVS, for staff employed with 'volunteering' as their brief?
Ten years ago, NAVB merged with the National Centre for Volunteering and we collectively penned documents about 'Building on Success'. Within the VC network there were, I think fears about less volunteer centres etc.
I just wonder if a (almost) bi-product of this merger might signal them disappearing altogether?
It might not produce a noticeable affect this year, or next year, or even in the next 5 years, but I've got absolutely no doubt that losing the independent voice of an organisation that is concerned solely with volunteering will have a significant (negative) impact. Not having a body that can devote itself to asking simply "what does this mean for volunteering" will come back and bite us. For years I overhead (and was asked) "what exactly does VE do for us"...unfortunately it seems the sector will soon find out just how important it is to have around.
I am sure that this will be a topic at the West Midlands VC network in Birmingham on Wednesday. All VC's are not adverse to partnership working and we are certainly aware of economies of scale - so a merger may be a sensible economic and realistic move. However, I am sure that most VC's will regret the loss of a national body whose sole focus is volunteering. We may also regret any shift away from the continuing development of quality standards based soley on the 6 core functions of a Volunteer Development Agency. Interesting and challenging times indeed.