With statutory funding now comprising over 65% of Irish community and voluntary sector income, and with average cuts in statutory grant support of 12% plus having taken place over the last couple of years, the sector faces challenges in protecting its independence and its capacity to advocate to Government.
We need to diversify the funding base for community and voluntary organisations...
It is generqlly recognised that the community and voluntary sector has important roles to play in innovating new services and in identifying emerging need – roles that clearly involve advocacy by participating organisations.
Yet in the face of this demanding role, statutory service level agreements and grant agreements are currently being implemented (for example by the Health Services Executive) that will ensure that grant-funds cannot be used to support activity designed to “obtain changes in the law or related government policies or to persuade people to adopt a particular view on a question of public policy” - to prevent advocacy activity in other words.
In the background to all of this are a number of well-known cases where community and voluntary organisations have felt that their right to advocate using state funds has been questioned.
What do we need to do to enable the sector to protect its independence / ensure its ability to advocate?
Firstly, we need Government to work with the community and voluntary sector to develop a framework to structure relationships between the sector and the state so that the ground rules governing advocacy activity by community and voluntary organisations are set out and are well understood by personnel on both sides. Once these ground rules are well understood then organisations that adhere to them in their advocacy activity should have no concerns over the funding-consequences of their advocacy activity.
This relationship-framework should involve the development of an agreement (Comhaontu as Gaeilge) that will set out the ground rules to structure all engagements between community and voluntary bodies and statutory bodies.
The implementation of the Comhaontu by all statutory bodies in their negotiations with community and voluntary organisations should be mandatory. A good place to start would be the principles of the White Paper Supporting Voluntary Activity.
Secondly, we need to diversify the funding base for community and voluntary organisations so that community and voluntary organisations can advocate from a position of strength with increased funding from a variety of sources.
This will require establishing a task-force to study the area in depth, to examine and make proposals in relation to developing a sustainable funding framework for the sector, one that is designed to protect the independence of voluntary organisations and their ability to advocate strongly where necessary - without concerns about possible impacts of their advocacy activity on future statutory funding.
Such a task-force could examine the potential of increasing the role that philanthropy, independent foundations and trusts could play in diversifying the funding mix for the sector, and assist the sector to ensure independence, even in the context of a supportive agreement / comhaontu being in place.
The first objective noted above – developing a Comhaontu for the sector – should involve the state in taking the lead, and inviting its partners in the community and voluntary sector to co-develop and implement an agreement to structure and inform engagement.
The second objective however is one that the community and voluntary sector cannot expect the state to lead on. It is up to the community and voluntary sector to provide leadership for itself here, and while it is certainly true that the state has an interest in ensuring that there is a “useful” community and voluntary sector in place, it is arguably less interested in how strong or independent organisations in the sector are.
The Wheel is currently undertaking a study, funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to identify the elements that would need to be in place to provide a more diversified funding-base for community and voluntary organisations. We hope that the study will contribute to developing a sustainable funding framework for the sector, one that is designed to protect the independence of voluntary organisations and their ability to advocate strongly where necessary.