09 February 1996 - 11 February 1996

The Role and Working of the Voluntary Sector

Chair: Lord Dahrendorf KBE FBA

We began our discussions with a vivid awareness that our subject-matter defied ready definition. The voluntary sector was vast (we heard a figure of twenty million organisations worldwide), immensely diverse and by its very nature resistant to tidy encapsulation - the nearest we came to a description was perhaps by reference to what it was not: it was the aggregate of collective activities filling the space between the family, the state and the business sector. As a result, scarcely a single meaningful general proposition, or any common agenda item, could be formulated about it without need for qualification.            

We did however recognise important patterns of national difference in the strength and character of the sector - at its most powerful and pervasive, for reasons of deep social and political history, in the United States; generally robust, too, in Britain; less so, though still highly significant, in the west of continental Europe; as yet comparatively weak in Japan. The ex-Communist countries of central and eastern Europe were in a special stage of evolution, after decades in which the voluntary concept had been alien to political structure and ethos.

At least in the old “West” the voluntary sector had recently come under a fresh spotlight, as Governments increasingly recognised their own limitations and sought to enlist the sector’s capabilities more widely to meet society’s needs. The recognition was in principle healthy, but it carried two risks for the sector. The first was that (amid heightened constraints on public expenditure) the transfer of tasks might not be partnered by a matching allocation of resources. The second was that task-transfer might damage the character of the voluntary sector, both through a deepening of dependence on state funding and through the effect which the demands of accountability for the taxpayers’ money might have upon the spontaneity, flexibility, innovativeness and informality which were among the sector’s most salutary characteristics. At least in the service-providing area of the sector, the challenge of sustaining these strengths amid the pressures – in themselves natural and proper - to demonstrate skilled professionalism and probity was becoming more severe. We heard arguments pulling both ways : it was salutary for the sector to be required, as by contract, to focus on measured results; but might the requirement for business techniques slide info an attitude of business values?        

We were however vigorously reminded that service provision was not the only - and, some participants urged, must not be regarded as the predominant - role of the sector. The very fact of freely-chosen participation and responsibility-sharing by individuals in voluntary organisations had a special social and moral value in        itself, regardless of formal output; a healthy civil society, as expressed in a lively voluntary sector, was a necessary aspect of true democracy, for formal democratic institutions alone could not suffice. Moreover, the key contribution of the voluntary sector was arguably not service-provision but advocacy and challenge to the mechanisms and assumptions of the state. It was important that dependency on public funding in the service role should not imperil freedom of campaigning (and at least from that standpoint defined contract might well be  a more apt mode than general subsidy when state funding had to be given).      

Understandably, we found no one neat pattern for the sector’s financing. We learned that even in the United States - where habit and perhaps social pressure customarily gave far more impetus to individual philanthropy than was customary in most other countries - the sector received some sixty percent of its income from public funds and much of the remainder from fees for service; there was, moreover, disquieting evidence that the philanthropic residue was in decline. Tax exemption - itself ultimately a form of state subsidy - was of very wide ambit in the US, but concern was voiced about whether it might be (ought to be, some suggested) imperilled by the strains, apparent increasingly in many countries, resulting from the drive to enhance voluntary-sector revenue by the undertaking of commercial activities which posed awkward questions about fair competition with private business. More generally, fund-raising efforts could sometimes absorb an excessive share of the time and energy available to a voluntary organisation. 

We were reminded how crucial a resource the unpaid volunteer - often unrecognised in formal accounting - was across most of the sector (though, again, we heard misgiving about whether social-attitude  shifts might be undermining the propensity to contribute in this way). Volunteers were a key link with the wider community, and their training, support and sensitive use were of high importance - in the face sometimes, a participant suggested, of suspicion or unease among professionals. The erosion of traditional employment patterns in developed economies might, it was conjectured, increase the availability of voluntary effort and so its significance within the sector’s total resources.

Mounting expectations of the sector imposed, as we acknowledged, considerable demands upon its governance if public confidence was to be sustained; it could not look for exemption from the pressures, within societies increasingly marked by reduced trust in institutions of all kinds, of critical media scrutiny as well as of public-funding and fraud-preventing audit. The sector needed to foster a due degree of self-criticism, and to resist the temptation to rely, either in its public presentation or in its own self-understanding, upon the “halo” effect of noble aims, worthy motives and not-for-profit basis; these did not in themselves guarantee efficient operation in service provision, or due care and integrity in campaigning advocacy. Transparency and coherent structures of accountability were needed, and the role of trustees or other members of governing bodies must not be a figurehead function - real responsibility had to be recognised, with proper care taken in selection and in renewal as well as in specific training; and responsibility should extend to systematic and regular review of institutional purpose and performance.

The theme underlying our discussion of governance was that it was much better for the sector to regulate itself than to have the state do so. Legal frameworks were needed both to protect and within reason to discipline the sector, and a measure of public surveillance or regulation was unavoidable - at minimum, to apply the criminal law; nevertheless, these should always have pragmatic regard to the reality of need. Across large areas of the sector size or purpose were such as to make out of place the apparatus of scrutiny and control appropriate in respect of (say) a massive service-provider.         

Our debate touched recurrently on tensions in the relationship with government. Some such tensions were unavoidable and indeed fruitful; even in service-providing areas there were proper differences of culture and of motivation, and it was natural that the sector should be constantly alert to fend off attempts to impose excessive tidiness or other constricting features of public-sector working. At the same time, automatic hostility to government would be neither just nor helpful, and the sector needed to recognise both the due merit of public-sector standards and the demands which public-money accountability and political answerability (including sensitivity to the media) might legitimately impose upon public officials in their dealings with voluntary organisations. But government for its part did not always sufficiently acknowledge the social value of the voluntary sector (including its diversity and occasional contrariness) beyond its specific service output.

We found too little time to discuss relations between the sector and the world of business, though we knew that this was an important (and complex) aspect of its working. Similarly, we should have liked to explore more deeply the international dimension, including the special problems of the sector in newly-democratic countries. We were briefly reminded about the valuable UN recognition of the sector’s significance, and about its value in spreading ideas and sometimes exerting pressure across borders. We heard also about the uneven yet often beneficial performance of Western countries in aid - whether by funding or by advice - to the sector as it developed and took root in central and eastern Europe; there was manifestly a further contribution to be made.    

The need for analysing and disseminating experience and good practice - partnered perhaps by a deeper effort than was generally available at present in basic research on the sector - was without doubt not confined to any one category of country, and we saw the value of current special efforts, for example in Britain, to refresh and systematise understanding of the sector’s character and value. A sense of that value - the value, ultimately, of the citizen’s chosen personal contribution within the community beyond what the state might impose - had infused all our discussions.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman : Lord Dahrendorf KBE FBA
Warden, St Antony’s College, Oxford


Dr Caroline Bamford

Secretary/Researcher, Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector in Scotland
Mrs Tessa Baring
Chairman, The Association of Charitable Foundations
Ms Lynne Berry
Chief Executive, Family Welfare Association
Mr Peter Bottomley MP
Member, House of Commons (Conservative), Eltham
Professor Nicholas Deakin
Chairman, Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector
Mr Stuart Etherington
Chief Executive, National Council for Voluntary Organisations      
Mr Richard Fries             
Chief Charity Commissioner
Mr John Harwood
Chief Executive, Oxfordshire Country Council
Mr Arnold Kemp
Chair, Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector in Scotland       
Ms Jane Kershaw            
Secretariat, Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector
Ms Usha Prashar CBE
Lately Director, National Council for Voluntary Organisations
Miss Carolyn Sinclair
Director-designate, Constitutional and Community Policy Directorate, Home Office          
Mr Mark Suzman
Social Affairs Correspondent, Financial Times
Mrs Winifred Tumim OBE
Chairman, National Council of Voluntary Organisations
Mr Howard Webber
Head of Voluntary Services Unit, Home Office
Mr Charles Woodd
National Director, Community Matters
Mr Robert M Worcester
Chairman, MORI (Market and Opinion Research International)    
Miss Barbara Young      
Chief Executive, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

Mr Tim Brodhead
President-Chief Executive Officer, The J W McConnell Family Foundation I
Mr Donald S Rickerd OC
President, Max Bell Foundation
Mrs Michele Thibodeau-deGuire             
President and Executive Director, Centraide du Grand Montreal

Mr Géza Mezei
Head of the NGO Section, Political Directorate, Council of Europe

Soscha Gräfin zu Eulenburg
Vice President, German Red Cross
Rupert Graf Strachwitz
Chairman, Kulturstiftung Haus Europa

The Revd István Zalatnay
Pastor, Transylvanian Congregation, Budapest, and its Charity and Cultural Centre, “Hope Island”.

Mr Masimo Tashiro
Senior Assistant Director, The Philanthropy Department, Keidanren
Ms Keiko Watanabe
Representative, Japan Secretariat Office, International Youth Foundation

Mr Pavol Demeš
Foreign Affairs Adviser to the President
Mrs Katarina Kost’áilá
Director, Slovak Academic Information Agency - Service Centre for the Third Sector, Bratislava

Dr Victoria Bjorklund
Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, New York; Member, Committee on Non-profit Organizations, New York Bar Association
The Hon John Brademas
President Emeritus, New York University; Chairman, American Ditchley Foundation
Mr Peter Garcia
President/CEO, Chicanos Por la Causa Inc, Phoenix, Arizona
Mrs Frances Hesselbein
President, Drucker Foundation
Mrs Mary D Lindsay
Board of Visitors, Columbia University School of Nursing
Mrs Wendy W Luers
Founder and President, Foundation for a Civil Society (formerly Charter 77 Foundation - New York)
Professor Brian O’Connell

Professor of Public Service, Tufts University
Mr John O’Connor
Administrative Director-designate, American Ditchley Foundation
Mr Martin J Rosen
President, The Trust for Public Land, San Francisco
Mr Robert Montgomery Scott
President, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Mr James T Sykes
Associate Director, Institute on Aging, University of Wisconsin-Madison