Why do we need a third sector anyway?


Susan Smith argues that creating a fairer society requires a third sector willing to mount a challenge to growing external criticism

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19th August 2015 by Susan Smith 7 Comments

The spring and summer of 2015 has seen a rash of negative publicity for charities – first we had mismanagement of the Kiltwalk, then public distaste for charity chief executive pay came up again and in May the fundraising industry was accused of hounding a 92-year-old woman to death.

More recently, several London and Edinburgh offices of household-name charities have been publicly brawling and the summer is coming to a close alongside Kids Company, one of the UK’s most celebrated if unorthodox voluntary organisations. For those of us working in the third sector, there is a lot to think about.

Right now, we are not alone in this pursuit; it is hard to remember a period when the mainstream media took a greater interest in the workings of the third sector than the last couple of months. While this has made the sector the target of much misinformation and cheap shots, often from some surprising quarters, there have also been some thought-provoking examinations of what has gone wrong in each of these specific cases.

Now though, with the end of the summer silly season and the return of more powerful punching bags to public life, the mainstream media will no doubt lose interest in charities for a while.

That’s the problem. Despite scare stories about the millions of public and donor cash spent on paper clips and fundraising campaigns, the reality is that the third sector is pocket change to national newspaper reporters. Scotland’s GDP is £141 billion with total public spending amounting to around £65bn a year. In this context Scotland’s £5bn third sector is at best a fringe interest. Not only this, the sector covers nearly 25,000 registered charities and 45,000 voluntary organisations. Most have an income of under £50,000 and employ less than half a dozen people. As a sector, it’s too complicated for the average reporter – until the next nice juicy and straightforward scandal, that is.

As a sector we do need to ask ourselves some hard questions, but not necessarily the obvious ones the ill-informed are pushing us towards.

But, rather than breathe a sigh of relief that the eye of the media has moved on to more bigger prey, the third sector really ought to use this opportunity to strengthen its defences. 

It is increasingly clear that this is not a one-off battle. There are more malignant forces underpinning these stories – perhaps a powerful section of society that would like to see a smaller third sector – and their mission will continue to gather pace unless the sector mounts a challenge. Public trust is beginning to falter, and if it topples completely, where does that leave the thousands of people who depend on the third sector bodies every year?

As a sector we do need to ask ourselves some hard questions, but not necessarily the obvious ones the ill-informed are pushing us towards.

Britain’s third sector organisations were created for a purpose and navel gazing and self-flagellation will not deliver that purpose. Many (arguably most) were created by the people they are set up to serve, yet their needs have been invisible in all of this. The focus on the donor as the only stakeholder that counts echoes the private sector model of investor and financial return. Efficiency may be a key tenet of capitalism, but does it really apply to social action?

And then there’s the sticky issue of public services. Third sector social care providers have an excellent reputation providing person-centred services usually better than either the public or the private sector. Does that mean public donations should subsidise services that the tax-payer believes they have already funded? Who should the sector be accountable to for these services? Is it possible to draw a line between essential and additional public services anyway?

What this all comes down to is why we are here. If we are not firm in our purpose, how can we respond to criticism? Society is not a binary notion, despite the desire of the media, politicians and some members of the public to neatly box it that way.

Although we are third in name our nature is much greater, potentially boundless. Let’s shake off the inferiority complex that leads the third sector to dance to the tune of government and media and be really honest about our intentions. We are here to help create a better, fairer society – there's nothing to be ashamed of in that.

Susan Smith is editor of Third Force News.

Do you agree with Susan? How do you think Scotland’s third sector should respond to criticism? Is the third sector doing enough to address its own weakness? Email [email protected] or comment here.

19th August 2015 by Wally Harbert

There are some profound truths in what you say but I simply do not accept that the third sector usually provides better services than the other two sectors. Do not let the warm glow that surrounds charity work fool you.We once thought services run by public bodies were unimpeachable because they were accountable through a democratic process. We slowly learned that vast public enterprises, politically controlled, are unresponsive and self-serving.The next bright idea was contracting out to the private sector where efficiencies were thought to flow from competition. This has led to corners being cut and savings being achieved by cutting back on staff training and the wages of front-line providers.Why should services by philanthropic charities be any better? They compete in the same marketplace. They are not accountable to the public but are based on the assumption that men and women of goodwill know what is best for those of us needing services. Well, they don’t!The only third sector bodies I feel comfortable about are those that are controlled by service users. They have a legitimacy and an authenticity that I accept. They represent a genuine third way between public and private. Yes, they make mistakes, but they are mistakes made in pursuing a worthwhile ideal, not mistakes that are inherent in their own structure.Public bodies and politicians are no longer trusted. Nor are those who make their living by profiting from services provided to the poor and needy. Now, those who set themselves up without authority to know what is good for us are in the line of fire. Good. Now let us try government of the people by the people, for the people. It’s worth a try.

19th August 2015 by Gavin M

A very good defence and this assertion stood out; "There are more malignant forces underpinning these stories – perhaps a powerful section of society that would like to see a smaller third sector" I must admit I struggle to understand that position. In this austerity neoliberal consensus that has its stranglehold on UK and Scotland at present and is making welfare and the state smaller, then it would seem that this will only make the third sector bigger - look at the rise of foodbanks.

19th August 2015 by Caroline

I enjoyed and agree with many of your statements, I feel the third sector has been awash with media mistruths this summer and it feels a depressing time. However, I do believe that all third sector organisations must be more transparent in how they operate and how they use public money to enable the trust to be built and maintained with their funders and donors. We need to be clear in our purpose, our why but we also need to be happy to share how we operate and how we use our funds. Thanks for this article

19th August 2015 by Janine

I thought this was a very intelligent article and I was hoping that somebody would have the courage to question the barrage of stories to discredit the sector. When I started in the voluntary sector around 25 years ago it was as an activist which was where many of us started. I had major issues with the experience of disabled people including my own experience as a disabled person with masses of qualifications but discriminated against. I fought for better treatment for other disabled people and changes did happen as we could question politicians and push ourselves into the structures to ask for change. Most of those involved in the sector were there because we believed in a cause and we were passionate about it. We were and are different because society needs those who can question and that was why years ago we had the Compact to enable the voluntary sector to lobby and campaign but still be treated with respect. Charities had to become professional and have structures relevant to business management principles but we were not given appropriate core funding to pay for it so therefore the majority were operating senior structures with salaries substantially lower than those in the public and private sectors. So passion for change still had to be the main motivator. Press coverage of senior salaries is in relation to very large charities the vast majority are not in that position. So most small and medium sized charities are working with low core budgets and a variety of different funders with differing requirements. We have to do things very professionally, evidence based and innovative to stand out and attract funding. However internal issues will often arise due to short term funding and dissatisfaction of staff who believe in the cause but have families to support and fear of losing income. Therefore we are an easy target. In reality any organisation including those in the public sector could attract criticism if there was enough digging done as there is never perfection. But looking back over the years the changes I have seen in the way I am now treated came about by those who would fight tirelessly for change and that was the voluntary sector. If there was to be a campaign now it should be to save it.

20th August 2015 by Susan Smith

Thanks for all your comments everyone - I was hoping to get some debate going, so please keep them coming.Just to clarify one point, TFN has run a number of stories over the years highlighting the fact that third sector bodies get more top Care Commission ratings than either the public or private sector. Here is just one story that backs up my assertion that the third sector often provides better public services. http://thirdforcenews.org.uk/tfn-news/voluntary-sector-in-a-league-of-its-own-in-care-home-provision

21st August 2015 by Margaret

I could not agree more with the last sentence, weare being pushed to be more "like" the statutary, but surely we should try to resist that. I understand that "more effective" can be acheived but not by top down methods, eg not more and more centralisation, but let the grass roots grow, without them the crop will fail

21st August 2015 by Wally Harbert

Thank you for supplying this reference. It is makes for impressive reading but it does not tell the whole story.A Third Sector Research Centre study in 2010 reviewed nearly fifty pieces of research and concluded that third sector providers paid greater attention to the views of staff than to those of service users or volunteers. (The Third Sector Delivering Public Services: an evidence review).Two years earlier, the Public Administration Select Committee could find no data to indicate that the sector yielded improved outcomes over other sectors.The most we can say is that a general statement to the effect that the third sector delivers better services is not proven. I have seen good and bad in them all.