Cultural Playing Field

NCVO Annual Conference 2009 by Robin Simpson
February 20, 2009, 11:19 am
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On Wednesday I was at The Brewery in the City of London to attend the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. The NCVO conference is always a really enjoyable, thought-provoking day and this year was no exception. The keynote speaker in the morning was Vince Cable, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and Shadow Chancellor. He started by suggesting there was a danger for the voluntary and community sector of “drowning in a bath of warm words” as politicians of all persuasions queued up to say nice things about the sector. He focussed on the effects of the recession on the sector, identifying a “scissors crisis” of diminishing income at the same time as rising needs. The situation was not, however, unremittingly negative: “in a time of crisis we may get a sense of solidarity with people becoming less selfish and looking more to their local community”. It is also important to remember that “for the vast majority of people, this crisis doesn’t affect them: for many it will pass largely unnoticed.” Dr Cable finished by saying that, with the voluntary and community sector now representing 10% of UK GDP, it could be a key player while the private sector is paralysed.


I then attended a breakout session on ‘futures for civil society’, led by Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation who is Chair of the Carnegie Enquiry into the Future of Civil Society. We looked in detail at the short term challenges for civil society and the long term questions coming out the other side of the recession. We worked in small groups to identify particular challenges for civil society and actions to address them. A common theme emerged around the economic crisis providing an opportunity for civil society to pull together to realise its collective potential. But we also discussed the difficulty of developing ‘civil society’ as a collective entity whilst preserving the unique strength and resilience which stems from its composition of a multitude of small, diverse, independent organisations and individuals.


In the afternoon I took part in an excellent session on the future of ‘membership’ led by Matthew Taylor of the RSA. Through presentations from Karl Wilding, Head of Research at NCVO, and Alex Hunt of the National Trust, and a lively group discussion, we looked at changing notions of ‘membership’ and the effects of technology, consumerism and demographics on membership organisations. Among many interesting observations, the one idea that has really stuck in my mind is the “inverse activist law” but I’m afraid Chatham House Rules prevent me from saying any more! Matthew Taylor concluded that:

·        membership organisations are not competing with each other

·        there is a need for a new generation of civic collaborative community organisations

·        many of us are holding on to outdated membership structures

This session marked the launch of a project looking at membership issues which is being undertaken by the NCVO Third Sector Foresight Team with the RSA: I look forward to following their progress.


In his annual ‘state of the sector’ address, NCVO Chief Executive, Stuart Etherington, paid tribute to the Government Ministers and officials who had worked hard to deliver the recession action plan for the third sector. He said we were now seeing the limitations of the market and the state: in tougher times ahead conventional solutions will not always work. “We need to develop a new approach driven by the values and methods that civil society embodies.” Stuart launched NCVO’s new Civil Society Framework for Action which seeks long term sources of funding, support for social cohesion, no restriction of the campaigning role of the sector, support for volunteering and collective action on climate change. He talked about the new European Civil Society network and called on the UK Government to create a Department for Civil Society with its own Secretary of State, its own budget and its own powers. Stuart finished by saying “it is an active civil society that makes our country the wonderful place it is.” Baroness Jill Pitkeathly, Chair of the Office of the Third Sector Advisory Body, replied to Stuart Etherington’s speech, emphasising that politicians and policy makers are people too and saying that positive and supportive messages will be listened to and remembered. The final keynote speaker was Benjamin Barber, an American political commentator and former advisor to President Clinton. In a rousing speech he suggested that democracy depends on a healthy civil society and that civil society will be essential to “the restoration of trust on which the future of democracy around the world will depend”.


The NCVO conference closed with a drinks reception hosted by The Guardian, at which the Minister for the Third Sector, Kevin Brennan, praised the work NCVO had done in setting up the third sector recession summit which had led to the Government’s recession action plan for the sector.

Robin Simpson. 

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