19th May 2016

Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield

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The great and the good of voluntary sector research descended upon Sheffield on 19th May for the latest VSSN Day Conference on The future of voluntary action in unsettled times. The Conference was hosted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Research (CVSR) and held in the Stoddart Building – home of the Sheffield Business School.

The conference opened with a keynote presentation from Professor Pete Alcock from the University of Birmingham. Pete’s paper was entitled Neither in nor against the state – revisiting the role of the third sector in constructing civil society, and he took us on a whistle stop tour of voluntary sector policy in the UK in recent years to demonstrate that the issue of whether the sector should be in or against the state has occupied the thoughts of activists and academics for 40 years or more. His central argument was that being in or against the state represented a false dichotomy, and that the relationship between the state, the voluntary sector and the market was best characterised through the notion of interdependence. Pete concluded by offering an alternative lens through which to analyse these relationships – Civil Society – which he argued could provide the basis for renewed debate about the importance of collective action in society. This was (probably) Pete’s final substantive participation in a VSSN Conference before retirement so at the end his presentation VSSN Chair Rob Macmillan thanked Pete for his involvement in VSSN over many years. It was perhaps fitting that Pete’s journey ended where it began – in Sheffield and at Sheffield Hallam University (or Sheffield City Polytechnic as it was known) – where he started work as a research assistant in the mid-1970s.

The morning session concluded with a paper from Jo Watts, a PhD Researcher from Sheffield Business School on Collaboration among non-profit organisations in policy discourse. Drawing on many years’ experience as a practitioner in the voluntary sector and the early stages of her PhD research, Jo applied a discursive institutionalism lens to explore the extent to which the current voluntary sector policy landscape, in particular the emphasis on inter-organizational collaboration, can be considered ‘new’. Through examination of the discursive layering of ideas, she argued that rather than representing a new policy era, in many ways the position of the current Conservative government harks back to those of previous administrations.

The afternoon began with a paper from another PhD researcher, Sam Ramsden from the University of Hull, entitled Sowing seeds – fragile sustainability of volunteer led urban food growing projects working in deprived areas of the UK. Sam’s paper drew on his experience of working with a Big Lottery funded food growing project in a deprived area of Hull that had successfully engaged marginalised people as a team of volunteers. He discussed the challenges of sustaining the project’s various activities once their funding had finished and concluded that the potential sustainability of their work was very fragile without further financial resources: volunteers needed the support of paid staff to become established, but the lead organisation needed to be able to pay those staff, and both groups need to secure land to continue their food growing.

The final paper of the day came from Ellen Bennett and Chris Damm from Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) on ‘Early Action’: how to instigate a new policy paradigm. Their presentation explored the strategic behaviour of key actors in the field of Early Action to achieve a paradigm shift within UK social policy. They sought to explain this behaviour by considering three theoretical frameworks that might help to elucidate their findings. First, they looked at how attempts to draw upon longstanding concepts of preventative action could be understood through Kingdon’s theory of ‘policy windows’. Next, they explored how a strategic action field based approach might explain actors’ attempts to agitate for a new ‘field conception’. Finally, they considered how institutional theory, in particular the concept of institutional logics, helped explain how actors are attempting to shift the organising principles which guide organisations within the field, in order to lend coherence to a new way of working. Chris and Ellen concluded that no one theory fits perfectly to explain the emergence of the Early Action paradigm, and sought attendees’ views on whether a ‘pick and mix’ approach to social theory was appropriate in these circumstances.

The Conference concluded with plenary panel session in which three experts were ask to provide some personal reflections from their own work on the future of voluntary action in unsettled times. Janet Wheatley, CEO of Voluntary Action Rotherham, began by talking about some of their successes in the local voluntary sector in recent years, highlighting the three Rs – resources, relationships and research – as crucial components in this regard. She was followed by Nick Germain of Doncaster Council, who told us a about the Well Doncaster project, through which they are seeking to stimulate grass roots voluntary and community action as a way of addressing entrenched health and economic inequality in deprived communities. Finally, Sarah Pearson from CRESR provided her personal reflections on the day, and her own work, to argue that despite enduring austerity and a sometimes hostile external environment, the next few years provide an opportunity for new and innovative approaches to emerge through voluntary action that might provide at least some antidote to the problems being faced.

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Papers presented at event