19th May 2010

Centre for Voluntary Sector Research (CVSR), Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, Sheffield , United Kingdom

This was the third time on which we at the Centre for Voluntary Sector Research (CVSR) at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) had hosted a VSSN seminar. Some 45 VSSN members and guests were registered for the day, which was on the specific theme of ‘Governance and Regulation in the Voluntary Sector’.

A key feature of the day seminars is that at least 40 minutes is allowed for presentation and discussion of each paper, and all papers are presented sequentially. So unlike larger conferences, there is time for presenters to develop an argument in detail, and to get into some significant issues of debate with the audience – and there is no risk of a having to chose between papers being presented simultaneously in different rooms. This does, however, mean that it is getting more challenging to get papers accepted for a VSSN seminar: on 19 May there was one invited paper, but we had to choose from eight submissions for the remaining four slots – we would like to invite all those who submitted abstracts and hope that those whose papers were not selected this time will consider revising them for a future VSSN seminar, or perhaps for the NCVO/VSSN conference.

The morning session was chaired by my SHU CVSR colleague, Tracey Chadwick-Coule – this included two papers looking at different issues of charity regulation. I took over the chair in the afternoon for three papers linked to issues of governance.

The day began with a welcome from Professor Mike Smith, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Transfer, Sheffield Hallam University and I then presented a brief introduction to the day which I called Governance and Regulation of the Voluntary Sector: Current issues and research themes. This was followed by an invited “keynote” paper on Reforming Gift Aid: Estimating the effects for donors and charities by Kimberley Scharf from Warwick University and Sarah Smith of the University of Bristol. Sarah explained the background to this key research undertaken for HM Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs and showed how the study explored the impact of possible changes to the regulatory system around gift aid relief for higher rate tax payers. The findings revealed some interesting conclusions around donor behaviour in the different scenarios. This was one of the first papers VSSN has received from an economics discipline. (See below for the abstract and a link to the full report of this study from HM Treasury.)

The second morning paper was from Alison Dunn, Newcastle University Law School on The impact of counter-terrorism regulation on charities and their governance. Alison’s paper looked at a range of unexpected consequences of counter-terrorism legislation on charities, especially those working overseas in zones of conflict, drawing on an extensive analysis of the legislation. In particular, she highlighted the enormous burdens placed on charity trustees by such legislation.

The morning concluded, as usual with a VSSN Business Meeting which was chaired by Colin Rochester (VSSN Vice-Chair) in the absence of Chris Cornforth (VSSN Chair). There were no items requiring formal decision by members, but the business meeting was used to mark two very significant events in the life of VSSN:

1. The first issue of the VSSN-supported journal, Voluntary Sector Review had now appeared – all paid-up VSSN members had received their copies a few weeks previously. The editor, Peter Halfpenny, spoke about its significance, and encouraged members and others to continue the flow of high quality papers (full research articles and/or items for the “practice” and “policy” sections).

2. The VSSN Steering Group had just completed the tendering process to find a new VSSN Executive Officer, following completion of the initial three years of service provided by the Association of University Administrators. The contract to continue the work had been won by Dr Siona Liff of the Derbyshire-based company Appleby Ltd. Sonia was present at the seminar and spoke briefly to members.

At lunchtime, participants moved into an adjacent room for a buffet lunch provided by SHU Catering Services and ample time for networking.

The afternoon session comprised three papers. We began with Governance issues in voluntary organisations with local-national structures by Paul Robson of Age Concern and Chris Cornforth of the Open University Business School. As mentioned, Chris was unable to attend but Paul presented some of the conflicts and dilemmas in complex organisations with group or federal structures, drawing especially on the experience of the Age Concern Federation, and the issues arising as a result of Age Concern England merging with Help the Aged to form Age UK.

The middle paper for the afternoon was Governance as dialogue – working across divide communities presented by Christina Schwabenland of London Metropolitan University. Christina’s paper took governance to a new level, looking at the work voluntary organisations working across religious and communal divides in three countries: India, Israel/Palestine and Ireland. She proposed the theoretical construct of the “dialogic” organisation, which provided a means for different communities to enter into dialogue and work together though a voluntary organisation established with governance across two communities.

The final afternoon paper was presented by Rachel Casiday, of Department of Voluntary Sector Studies, University of Wales, Lampeter (co-authored with her colleague Mike Hemmings who could not be present). She presented new research on The Compact in a paper entitled The Compact: Power and the embedding of the Voluntary Sector in changing concepts of public governance. This took us beyond the governance of individual voluntary organisations into broader issues of public governance using various literature on power to explain issues in the operation of The Compact in different situations.

All five papers provoked a wide range of questions. At the end, all the speakers (apart from Sarah Smith who had had to leave early) came together for a brief final plenary. Despite the different foci of the paper, a theme began to emerge linked to Christina’s dialogic model: in every case there were issues of voluntary organisations forming vital bridges where they had to steer patterns on governance between conflicting interests of donors and taxpayers, regulators and beneficiaries, local and national stakeholders, or charities and funders.

At the end of the day thanks were expressed to all participants, and to the SHU colleagues involved. Following the close of the formal session, many participants continued discussions over tea while the VSSN Steering Group adjourned for business.