Transforming the voluntary sector: A perpetual work-in-progress machine?
Macmillan, Rob (2010)

by Rob MacMillan

An awful lot can change in ten years. The voluntary sector has grown, changed shape and name, purportedly moved from the margins to the mainstream, and been variously involved in a whole range of government initiatives. This paper will provide a critical review of one significant aspect of these developments in the sector over the last decade, the question of ‘support’ for the sector in terms of capacity building and infrastructure.

After a period of sustained policy attention and investment, there is now a prospect of significant retrenchment in a new political context. At a potentially critical moment, the paper seeks primarily to reflect upon two key questions: firstly, what we think we have learnt about the development of capacity building and infrastructure in the voluntary sector over the last decade, and what this might mean for the new context, and secondly, how we might adequately conceptualise the role, work and position of capacity building and infrastructure.

Updating an earlier review, this paper takes stock of policy and evidence around capacity building and infrastructure, but then uses this to reflect on how infrastructure is variously imagined in efforts to transform the voluntary sector. The paper develops the idea that capacity building and the work of infrastructure might productively be conceptualised as ‘intervention schemes’ designed to achieve particular kinds of changes in organisations and in the sector as a whole, challenging what are thought to be outdated attitudes, practices and cultures in the sector.

Informed by literatures on modernisation and financialisation, but attempting to avoid suggestions of conspiracy, the paper argues that an uncritical view of ‘support’ as benign or empowering is likely to overlook at least part of the actual role played by infrastructure and capacity building initiatives in practice. ‘Support’ is rarely unconditional or non-directive; rather it arises within a discursive context with contested ideas and imaginings about how the sector ought to be. Thus the role of infrastructure as part of a wider transformative project – a perpetual work-in-progress machine – also needs to be part of the account of the sector in the last decade.

Rob MacMillan’s presentation is available here (Powerpoint format).

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