What research tells us about independence and values

Voluntary organisations are the third most trusted group in society according to the Charity Commission’s surveys (2008,2010, 2012,2014), perhaps because of their values and independence.

This is a difficult time for many voluntary organisations, whose commitment to values and independence is being increasingly tested. The combination of public sector cuts and rising costs and demand, has put many in an awkward financial position.

Independence

There is evidence that independence of voice can be constrained by self-censorship – particularly when funding comes from those responsible for policy and decision making. Voluntary organisations may also feel their mission and values are compromised.

The 2010 National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises found that among voluntary organisations:

  • activities such as giving advice and helping people to access services or benefits declined between 2008 and 2010, while the delivery of public services increased from 20% to 31%
  • around a third of organisations were dissatisfied with national grant and contract arrangements (compared to 18% who were satisfied with national arrangements and 27% satisfied with local arrangements).

Research also shows there is a feeling of powerlessness in the voluntary sector. In 2012, the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector heard that government has not always consulted with voluntary organisations as is required.

There are concerns that the boundaries between different sectors are being blurred. The term 'social enterprise' has no statutory definition. Some public sector organisations are becoming voluntary organisations, while many voluntary organisations and private companies run public services. There are public sector spin-offs, such as mutuals and co-operatives, and consortia made of organisations from more than one sector.

So for many, survival is what matters at present. But it is precisely when hard choices have to be made that the values of an organisation and the reasons for its independence must be recognised and supported.

Values

Some voluntary organisations are wary of being perceived as campaigning against their funders. However, being clear about values, and the difference they make to services and the lives of users, can give them a stronger negotiating position.

An example of this is Place2Be, which offers therapeutic and emotional support to children in schools. It relies on schools and local authorities for its funding. Since it has grown, Place2Be has found it needs to be more explicit about its values.

"Our value has been to be very focused on becoming excellent and a model of good practice."

NCVO interviewed ten voluntary organisations, including Place2Be, to find out how they put values into action. Our research shows that values:

  • are driven by people and expressed through their actions and behaviour
  • provide a common bond between different stakeholders who share the organisation’s values and aspirations
  • inspire and motivate donors and supporters, paid staff and volunteers
  • are expressed in what an organisation does, and how it does it
  • act as a vital touchstone for organisations facing change
  • are a powerful management tool, providing a framework to reflect and evaluate.

Values are important not, as one interviewee put it, because of "some fuzzy idea of doing good". They matter because they enable voluntary organisations to further their aims and aspirations more effectively.

As an interviewee from Birmingham Voluntary Service Council (BVSC) explains:

"Organisational confidence has grown considerably as a result of our work to clarify BVSC’s values. Decisions are easier to make. We’re less at risk of mission drift, and there’s a noticeably increased sense of unity amongst staff, trustees and stakeholders."

The interviews also highlighted the importance of communicating values. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) said:

"We articulate our values very strongly to ourselves, we demonstrate them to other people by what we do."

Values and independence create a strong bond with supporters and stakeholders – including trustees, volunteers, donors and funders – and promote a feeling of trust and respect.

Many of those we spoke to said they got involved with their organisation because it "affirmed and confirmed their personal beliefs". For instance, as one person put it, volunteers support voluntary organisations "because of their values, not just because they’ve got nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon".

Download Values into Action (PDF, 293KB), published in 2008.

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