Cultural Playing Field

Third Sector Research Centre Conference by Robin Simpson
April 19, 2013, 4:03 pm
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I was in London on Friday to attend the Third Sector Research Centre Conference at the British Library. TSRC was created in 2008 with funding from the Office for the Third Sector, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Barrow Cadbury Trust. It is now in the final year of its current funding and this conference was titled “What is the future for the third sector?” TSRC Director, Pete Alcock, suggested we needed to consider three questions: is this the worst of times?; is it no longer a ‘voluntary’ sector?; and is there a need for a strategic lead for the third sector? Dan Corry, Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital looked at how the third sector has changed since 2008, where it is going and why we need research on all this. He discussed ‘adjustment strategies’ (collaboration, mergers, closures, consortia, co-design and co-production) and wondered whether we were witnessing a ‘hollowing out’ of the middle of the sector. I took part in a workshop on ‘Organisations’ led by Rob Macmillan from TSRC and Karl Wilding from NCVO. Karl suggested that the new generation are ‘sector agnostic’ – they don’t care how they do social change, they just want to do it. Maybe traditional organisational structures are becoming less important. We discussed the danger of organisations focussing on perpetuating their own existence. It was an interesting and thought-provoking discussion with a group including academics, funders and representatives of third sector organisations.

Robin Simpson.

Equalities Below the Radar by Robin Simpson
September 28, 2012, 10:21 am
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I was in Birmingham on Thursday to attend a meeting of the Third Sector Research Centre’s Below the Radar reference group. This group informs the TSRC’s research into ‘Below the Radar’ small community groups. Thursday’s meeting explored the theme ‘Equalities Below the Radar’ and was attended by representatives of a wide range of voluntary and community sector organisations as well as the reference group members.

The morning session focussed on three particular areas of TSRC research: Who Supports Destitute Migrants?; Gypsy and Traveller Community Organisations – History, Issues and Futures; and Black and Minority Ethnic Voluntary Organisations – Voice and Influence. I took part in a workshop looking at BME voice and influence. There was a general feeling that one impact of the Equalities Act is that a lot of funding is now general funding for all aspects of equalities (rather than separate funding streams focussed on BME issues etc). With cuts to funding (particularly in local authorities) it is now more common for a ‘mainstream’ voluntary organisation (such as a Council for Voluntary Service) to be given a single tranche of ‘equalities’ funding where there had previously been a range of different funds going to smaller specialist representative organisations.

The afternoon session was a ‘Research Slam’ in which we heard a selection of 3-minute summaries of current TSRC research and then took part in ‘World Café’ discussions which gave us a chance to explore the issues that most interested us with the relevant academics. It was a very interesting day and great to have the chance to meet a wide range of people working specifically on equalities issues with small community groups.

Robin Simpson.

European Years: What do they mean for us? by Robin Simpson
January 30, 2012, 10:49 am
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On Friday afternoon I attended an Office for Civil Society Strategic Partners event, ‘European Years: What do they mean for us?’ at Europe House in London. Connecting the European Year of Volunteering 2011 with the European Year of Active Aging 2012 and the European Year of Citizenship 2013; this event involved the European Commission and key government departments coming together in dialogue with a range of civil society organisations. As the European Year of Active Aging 2012 begins, we shared learning from previous European Years as part of the last gathering of our European Year of Volunteering 2011 steering group. The general consensus seemed to be that the European Year of Volunteering had been very successful across Europe but only partly successful in England. The challenge was exemplified by one participant in a European Year of Volunteering event in Manchester who had memorably said “what on earth has Europe got to do with Oldham?!” There was some very sensible discussion about the need for a greater handover period between European Years – maybe three months at the end of each year in which the connections between the two themes are explored in more detail.

Robin Simpson.

Community sector lunch by Robin Simpson
November 25, 2011, 9:58 am
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I was back in London on Thursday for a working lunch organised by Community Matters and hosted by the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services. This informal gathering brought together more than a dozen national organisations representing community groups, many of whom used to be members of the Community Sector Coalition. We had a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion on topics including a broader vision for community finance, opportunities for autonomous and self-directed social action and connection with young people. We agreed to continue to meet occasionally as an informal group rather than trying to create a new alliance or coalition.

Robin Simpson.

England Volunteering Development Council meeting by Robin Simpson
November 25, 2011, 9:23 am
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On Tuesday I was in London for a meeting of the England Volunteering Development Council at which we welcomed the new EVDC Chair, Baroness Scott of Needham Market. Jess Steele from Locality gave a presentation on the Government’s Community Organisers scheme – one of the main Big Society initiatives. Locality is recruiting and training 500 paid community organisers over 3 years who will then be charged with finding 4,500 more volunteer community organisers. Jess stressed that the organisers will be facilitators, not leaders. Their job is to listen to people and encourage dialogue: the Government does not intend the organisers to bring any particular message and is not seeking any specific outcomes from the scheme. Jess had just visited New York, Detroit and Chicago to learn from the experience of community organisers in the USA. She explained the plan to create a legacy company that will continue to support the scheme after the end of the Government funding in 2015. Toby Blume from Urban Forum then delivered an entertaining and challenging presentation titled ‘There’s No Going Back to Normal: Normal Was the Problem’. Toby looked at the reality of The Big Society, localism, public sector reform, open government and spending cuts. He suggested that there is still a lot of money in this country: the state’s spending levels are still the same as in 2004/5. He talked about new forms of delivery, new ways of working and creative collaboration and gave examples of Urban Forum members engaged on ‘co-production and community resilience’ and ‘community rights made real’. It was an inspiring presentation which left us with the message “the future is ours to shape”.

Robin Simpson.

European Year of Volunteering 2011 working group meeting by Robin Simpson
November 18, 2011, 10:34 am
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On Thursday afternoon I made a first visit to the HM Treasury building on Horse Guards Road. We actually walked right past the door to George Osborne’s office – though I’m not sure whether he was inside! I was there for a meeting of the Office for Civil Society’s European Year of Volunteering 2011 working group. As we approach the end of the European Year of Volunteering, we were joined by Gwen Wolf from the Department for Work and Pensions who is working on the preparations for the UK involvement in the European Year of Active Aging 2012. Gwen updated us on the Government’s plans for 2012 and we discussed possible links between the two years. We also heard from Roisin Murphy from KPMG about their EYV11 work to promote and develop Employer Supported Volunteering and the prospect of developing long-term sustainable partnerships between the voluntary and private sectors.

Robin Simpson.

Below the Radar reference group meeting by Robin Simpson
October 7, 2011, 3:59 pm
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On Thursday I was at the University of Birmingham to take part in a meeting of the Third Sector Research Centre’s ‘Below the Radar’ reference group. The Below the Radar research stream was established by the Third Sector Research Centre to explore the role, function, impact and experiences of small community action groups or organisations. The Below the Radar research is informed by a reference group which brings together practitioners from national community networks (including Voluntary Arts), policy makers, researchers and others who bring particular perspectives from the sector. On Thursday we heard the details of the Third Sector Knowledge Portal, a new online database, bringing together research and information on the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors, which is to be launched by the Third Sector Research Centre next week, see: We also discussed possible topics for future Below the Radar research, recognising that community groups are probably the least researched part of the third sector.

Robin Simpson.