1st December 2011

Third Sector Research Centre, University of Southampton, Southampton

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The Day Conference proved to be a successful and stimulating event and the four papers covered much ground. There were contributions from both within and outside the UK; papers on both the voluntary sector as a whole, and on the sub-sector of faith-based organisations; and demonstrations of a range of methods and approaches. The structure of the day provided an opportunity for discussion, both after each paper, and over coffee and lunch.

The first paper was a contribution by Sibylle Studer, from the Centre of Philanthropy at the University of Basel, who presented the plans for a challenging research project on Swiss voluntary organisations and the ways in which they manage their volunteer resources and co-ordinate volunteer activity. In particular, the paper explained the project’s aim to explore the relationship between organisations and their volunteers with a view to understanding factors that underpin organisational environments within which volunteerism is ‘nurtured’. Highlighting the management cycle, attitudes to volunteers, organisational features and volunteering ‘outcomes’ as key, Sibylle outlined a research agenda that included both surveys and focus groups as a means of operationalising and understanding the relationship between voluntary organisations and their volunteers.

Jane Winter, from the Faith Based Regeneration Network, provided the second paper, based on recently completed work, and focussing on governance mechanisms within faith-based voluntary organisations. In particular, Jane provided a reflection on the successes and hurdles surrounding the use of quality standards tools used to look at effective governance in faith-based organisations. The project drew its data from in depth work with 7 faith-based groups that applied the Community Matters’ ‘VISIBLE’ tool to help them evidence and improve good practice. Jane’s paper emphasised the need for governance tools to take account of the relationships within the organisation, and between the organisation and its community which are inherent in the organisations’ mission and ways of working, and that these tools should be based on and rooted in community development principles. VISIBLE enabled organisations to see governance, and working to appropriate policies, as integral to the organisation rather than a barrier to the performance of the organisation. During questions, Jane added that the project had provided insights that were applicable to governance practices in the voluntary sector as a whole, but also insights specific to faith settings.

The third paper, by Daiga Kamerade from the University of Salford, was an examination of patterns of activity in voluntary organisations and the implications of these in the context of coalition policy drives and the ‘Big Society’ agenda. Using the British Household Panel Survey data between 1991 and 2007 allowed Daiga to put forward a dynamic picture of participation in voluntary organisations and to compare it to the static picture provided by cross-sectional data. The paper tested whether the approximately 45% of the population (captured by successive waves of cross-sectional data) who report not participating in such organisations at any one time are in fact participants at some point when looked at using a life-course approach. Grouping individuals into persistent abstainers, one-off, transitory, intermediary and committed participants, Daiga showed that there are far fewer numbers of abstainers when looked at using a longitudinal approach – 13% as compared to the 45% that are suggested by cross-sectional data. Concluding that people really do dip in and out of volunteering over time, the paper considered the potential policy implications, highlighting the importance of sustainable retention practices, rather than simply focussing on recruitment.

The last talk of the day was given by Graham Smith on behalf of Rebecca Edwards, both from the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Southampton. Along with a colleague, Milena Buchs, Rebecca and Graham have carried out an analysis of English policy documents and interviews with key policy actors to examine the trajectory of policy discourse regarding the Third Sector and the environment. Tracing policy initiatives from the New Labour years through to present day, the paper reflected on political discourse around the take up of the environment agenda in the context of the Third Sector and government’s role in its rise and, more recently, stagnation and decline. The paper argued that the Third Sector’s reaction to the Coalition’s policy has turned agnostic, or even antagonistic in England, yet it highlighted that this picture differed in other parts of the UK. In forecasting the future of the big ‘green society’, and the extent of government’s involvement in it, it was suggested that Third Sector organisations may soon have to be prepared for the implementation of sustainable procurement practices.

The day was split in two by the VSSN AGM and lunch. Amongst other insights, the former confirmed that VSSN is going strong and is financially secure – welcome news in this climate. Attention was drawn to Voluntary Sector Review, the VSSN’s new international journal, and thanks were extended to retiring members as well as welcome extended to those newly elected. Amongst other delights, the latter included sandwiches and a chance to chat about the morning’s papers. The conference proceedings gave way to a meeting of the VSSN Steering group, and contented participants made their way home. As a first-time attender of a VSSN conference, I must say that I found it an energising event and a welcoming group, and I look forward to the next opportunity to hear from colleagues in the Network.

Papers presented at event