Unite has launched a report on funding the not-for-profit workforce in Britain and Ireland. Entitled Unsustainable, it looks at the pressures on its 60,000 members working in charities, housing associations, youth services, law and advice centres, and other voluntary organisations. A total of 750,000 people work in some 171,000 registered charities within what the government calls “The Third Sector”.
It might as well have been called “The Forgotten Sector”. It is certainly at breaking point. A picture emerges of job insecurity, low morale, lack of training, poor management and organisation, undercutting, long hours, stress, bullying, ill-health, and poverty even among professionals, who are excluded from the world of mortgages and pensions, taking out personal loans to guarantee continuity of service rather than let their vulnerable clients down. But identifying the causes and the solutions has given the sector the confidence to begin to climb out of adversity.
Driven by EU rules, the market has started to pervade the small-scale charity workplace, characterised by moves away from reliable grant funding to short-term funding (making strategic planning impossible) and competitive tendering for unrealistic contracts, often in competition with the private sector. This has had the effect of an unbearable pressure to provide more for less, loss of integrity in the bidding process, undercutting the true value of a contract, and charities falsely representing themselves as capable of meeting impossible challenges. It could mean being exploited as a vehicle for privatisation of services, as has happened to services for children and young people, being taken out of local authority control and handed to the voluntary sector.
The question inevitably arises – what is the voluntary sector for? It sits uneasily alongside the public sector, governed by a Sector Compact or voluntary code setting out the relationship between the statutory and voluntary sectors. But Unite sees its members as the “backbone of civil society”, contributing hugely to the economy, and with an innovative campaigning and reforming role.
In recent times, as public sector terms and conditions were enhanced, and as training created a sense of professionalism, the not-for-profit sector benefited, assuming statutory functions funded from a range of investments, voluntary and corporate donations. During 2006/7 general charities received £33.2 billion in income. But losses in Icelandic banks, a decline in donations from the public, recession, and the imperative to keep council tax low, are all said to be factors exacerbating the funding crisis.
A lobby of parliament by reps from all over Britain on 9 March explained how the voluntary sector can be turned around. If it was meant to be a deferential request to Labour MPs, it didn’t turn out that way – union members themselves were forthright in criticising the government for ignoring the sector. Under Labour, they said, things had got worse.