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Book Review

Voluntary Organisations and Social Policy

in Great Britain

Updated 5/3/01

Published by Palgrave, Feb 2001, ISBN 0 333 79314 5, £15-99 (paperback). Editors: Margaret Harris, Colin Rochester.

Readers offer! This book is available to VolResource readers at the special price of 12.80 (RRP 15.99) plus 2.00 p&p. To order your copy, please contact f.woodruffe-peacock@palgrave.com or call Fiona on 01256 302611. For more information about this title and related titles, please visit Palgrave's website.

Based on papers originally presented to a two day symposium marking the twentieth anniversary of the LSE's Centre for Voluntary Organisations, the chapters have benefited from academic discussion and revision. Unlike many books produced from a variety of papers from different authors, this one does stack up as a coherent package. While not for the lazy reader, there is much of interest to those who get their 'hands dirty' in voluntary organisations.

It is basically split into 3 sections:

  • How are different aspects of social policy playing out from a voluntary sector viewpoint? (chapters 3 to 7)
  • How are social policies affecting particular kinds of voluntary organisation? (chapters 8 to 11)
  • How are social policies affecting key groupings within voluntary organisations? (ch. 12 - 14)

To start at the beginning

A couple of notable quotes from the Introduction:
"A problem for researchers is that different combinations of explanatory factors are responsible for the establishment and continued existence of different kinds of agencies in different kinds of policy environments."
"Public policy is poorer for the emphasis on the professional sector, as is research." - this professionalised lot being contrasted with "the messy and muddled yet vibrant sorts of voluntarism that often spring up as collective expressions of opposition to state and private sector policies and practices".

I was particularly interested in the chapters (5 and 6) on Regulation: the impact on voluntary action and Regeneration: the role and impact of local development agencies, along with the one entitled Boards: Just subsidiaries of the state? (chapter 12).

In reverse order

Starting off by describing why a "(largely) volunteer governing body" is fundamental to a voluntary agency and a useful broad classification of the functions of a board (which includes management committees, trustee councils etc.), Chapter 12 rounds up a range of relevant research, as do most of the chapters. However, one of the points is the comparative lack of such research, with voluntary boards not receiving much direct attention from politicians and policy-makers. The section author, Margaret Harris, makes a clear case that board members "are a key element in the policy implementation process in the era of welfare pluralism". She then goes on to analyse how they have coped in a "turbulent .... environment".While we can't repeat all the discussion and conclusions, again a coupe of quotes will give a flavour:

"Whereas board members at the national level may feel that there are compensations in the form of honour and excitement, local board members generally appear resentful and anxious, hanging on only because of a lingering commitment to the client group served by their agencies." "For the UK, it is largely at the local level that welfare policies are implemented. Thus policy-makers need to pay more attention to how their policies impact on local voluntary agencies...."


The size of the regulatory burden on smaller organisation is something VolResource is very aware of, and tries to do its bit to help them work out what to do. But when Community Matters is quoted here as reckoning that people managing village halls and community buildings need to be familiar with no fewer than 60 pieces of legislation, the task becomes even more pressing. With the resulting levels of anxiety and stress, it is also disappointing to read Charities Working Group of the Better Regulation Task Force "first priority (Sept 97) was a review of the regulatory framework for government funding" - important but of minimal impact on these small, local organisations.

The local development agencies (LDAs) of chapter 6 consists of such as local CVS or RCC, volunteer bureaux or play associations. They highlight 4 concerns:

  • that local authorities can use LDAs as a substitute for the wider involvement of local voluntary organisations;
  • that the LDAs can themselves become the puppets of the local authority and their area regeneration strategies, rather than the supporters of the local voluntary and community sector;
  • that LDAs can abuse their privileged access to local government to ensure that a greater proportion of regeneration resources is directed to themselves, rather than to the broader voluntary and community sector; and
  • that, even in ideal circumstances, LDAs cannot represent fully the diverse and pluralistic nature of local voluntary and community sectors.

The authors go on to describe three challenges and six implications for LDAs to enable successful involvement in regeneration partnerships, without undermining their core work of supporting the local voluntary and community sector.

Other chapter titles include:

  • Tackling social exclusion: the contribution of voluntary organisations
  • Contracting: the experience of service delivery agencies
  • Non-profit housing agencies: 'reading' and shaping the policy agenda
  • Volunteers: make a difference? which assesses whether various initiatives at increasing volunteering have paid off.
  • Users: at the centre of the sidelines?

The conclusion

Margaret Harris, in summing up, puts 3 dilemmas for voluntary organisations. Should they opt for organisational growth, which may bring loss of informality and flexibility, particularly for the smaller agency? To what extent is it appropriate to negotiate, debate with or challenge the approaches of potential or actual governmental funders? And how to cope with simultaneous pressures to both collaborate and compete?

My dilemma: how can I recommend to already hard-pressed voluntary sector stalwarts to use this book to step back and see how they are part of the wider scheme, and prompt thought on where the organisation is/should be going? A must-have for all voluntary sector hacks, anyway.

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