Voluntary Sector in Transition

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research.

As a Birkbeck student you sometimes end up going to events that are not related to your subject of study whatsoever (either because a friend has dragged you there or you are desperate for free wine after a hard day’s work at the library). But you always take away something that actually is relevant for your study. This was the case when I went to Linda Milbourne’s book launch last week. Two researchers and colleagues were invited to offer their thoughts on Linda’s book Voluntary Sector in Transition: Rob Macmillan, Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham and Mike Aiken, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University and an associate at the Institute for Voluntary Action Research.

Rob Macmillan began his introductory talk by pointing out the major shifts that the voluntary sector has undergone in the last few years and thus the importance of Linda’s book. The speaker stressed that the financial situation post-2008 has massively altered the operating environment for the sector, not only economically but also ideologically. As Rob maintained, “there is an ideological project going on at the moment which involves massive changes in the role of the State, and in consequence, the role of civil society”. The third sector, he maintained, is going through a process of “unsettlement”: the understanding of what the State is, what its role entails, what it can do has been uprooted with the present coalition. This is a very unsettling experience and has knock-on effects on third sector organisations. However, he also stressed that these unsettling experiences are not entirely new: “Linda’s book alerts us to the need to look for continuities as well as for change. So the May 2010 election might not be the most important date in terms of the third sector’s position.” So, some of the processes and trends affecting the voluntary sector were established before then (e.g. outsourcing of welfare services), although some of these things were intensified at the moment. Rob praised Linda’s book as a piece of work that addresses highly important questions about organisations’ survival and resilience. One of the key questions the book discusses, he said, is how organisations negotiate a fraud line between the idea of being autonomous and independent and therefore being able to speak up and developing new services and ideas in response to social needs and problems. As he said repeatedly, autonomy and survival are really important features in the book.

Mike Aiken stressed the empirical value of Linda’s book. In nine chapters, he said, the book goes through the key issues every student, researcher, activist or practitioner is facing in the field: “It is a seriously grounded book, grounded in theory and empirical work alike”. Two theories that are being used by the author are Institutional Theory and Resource Dependency Theory with some other theoretical considerations in each chapter. The reader, he said, will highly benefit from the three case studies that are being introduced relatively at the beginning of the book and referred to in each chapter. He described Linda’s book as a political and a critical book: “Linda sets out some of the key debates in the field without pretending that there are easy solutions. She shows the complexity and gives some hints here and there about what she thinks without being polemical.”

The last speaker of the evening was Linda herself. She too emphasized the rapid change of the welfare state and its consequences for the voluntary sector. As she informed the audience, some of the recent changes are mapped in the later chapters of the book whilst earlier chapters look at the transformations in the third sector over the last thirty years. Quite a lot of the book deals with the relationship between the State and the voluntary sector, and consequently with autonomy and dependency. So, a recurring theme that runs through the chapters is independence. To what extent does the voluntary sector loose autonomy when it gets incorporated into the State’s purposes and goals? Are alternatives to the current forms of organization possible in the current political environment? Her first two chapters look backwards as well as forwards, discussing the changing history and the ways in which voluntary organisations have adapted over time. The author stressed that when she was writing her book, she was very much concerned with the micro as well as the macro level. Hence what one will find in Linda’s book are the ways in which change, resistance and adaptation take place in the everyday-life of organizations. Her book contains field studies of small voluntary organizations, providing services for children and young people, but also membership organisations, advocacy and campaign groups as well as some bigger national charities. In her book, Linda looks at how organisations are dealing with the dilemmas they are facing, how tensions between professional and organisational autonomy are played out, how the emphasis on measurable performance shapes and reshapes services and, ultimately, our understanding of what welfare means. Overall, her book shows that there is a pressure towards growth, capacity building, entrepreneurism and diversification. Failure to survive as an organisation is seen to be a failure to adapt so-called ‘resilient’ behaviours. What I personally found most intriguing in Linda’s talk was that the fact that resistance can actually mean resilience. Linda’s case studies, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, show that those organisations that show resistance are in a stronger position to survive.

I am sure that this book will not just be relevant to those interested in the voluntary sector. But it will attract a wider, critical readership interested in the current socio-political changes that redefine our understanding of democracy and the role of the State.

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