Cultural Playing Field

Still Below the Radar: A Celebration by Robin Simpson
July 5, 2013, 1:46 pm
Filed under: meetings | Tags: , , , ,

I was at the University of Birmingham on Friday to take part in ‘Still Below the Radar: A Celebration’ – the annual conference of the Thirds Sector Research Centre’s Below the Radar Reference Group.

Professor Pete Alcock, the Director of the Third Sector Research Centre, explained that TSRC’s initial five-year funding from ESRC, The Office for Civil Society (Cabinet Office) and the Barrow Cadbury Trust runs out in August 2013. It is hoped that new funding will enable the continuation of TSRC and of its Below the Radar work, looking at small community groups, but this is yet to be confirmed.

The main session of the conference was a debate titled ‘Mitigate or Oppose? Navigating the Voluntary Sector’s Response to Austerity’. This was a panel discussion on how voluntary and community organisations are navigating the cuts, public service and welfare reform.

Alex Massey from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) presented the optimistic argument that many organisations in receipt of substantial public funding remain the most vociferous critics of Government. Alex felt confident that the sector’s ability to represent its beneficiaries to Government can be maintained. The sector’s resources are being squeezed from a number of directions but charities are showing how resourceful they can be.

Matt Scott from the Community Sector Coalition presented the pessimistic alternative, asking when does flexibility become self preservation and how much can we compromise before we lose our purpose? Matt said scale is really important: the voluntary sector is an iceberg – most of the sector is not seen and not understood, which is why the work of the Below the Radar programme is so important. He spoke about the growth of large charities and the decline of small and medium sized charities and said the sector had become a more unequal place. In the discussion that followed one speaker made the point that ten years ago partnership with the voluntary sector was seen as nice but now it is essential, because of the extent of public sector cuts. Several people suggested that a lot of large voluntary sector organisations have become more focussed on their own self preservation than on their original purpose. It was an interesting and passionate debate.

Robin Simpson.

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