So, the news I have been expecting for so long has finally been announced: Volunteering England and NCVO are in formal talks about a merger which could happen as early as 2013.
Ever since the coalition decided to phase out funding for its strategic partners, the writing was pretty much on the wall for those organisations who were heavily reliant on state funding, such as VE. The cuts in spring 2011 were necessary but it was inevitable that further cuts would come and, from my view as a former director of the organisation, the time would come when merger would become inevitable.
NCVO is the natural choice and not just because VE currently shares their building. They are perhaps the best capitalised of all the national sector infrastructure bodies and so their sustainability, even through tough times like these, is pretty much secure. Similarly they cover a range of areas in their work - infrastructure, leadership, funding, training and development etc. - and so the fit with volunteering, which crosses all fields and sectors, is a good one.
What is sad to see in the coverage of the story by the media is, yet again, the complete absence of an reference to VE's formation back in 2004. Way before anyone else thought it was a wise thing to do, well ahead of merger becoming a topic of open conversation in the sector, before ChangeUp even, VE was born from the merger of the other organisations. Not because funding was tight or diminishing, but because those organisations felt it was the best thing to do to move volunteering forwards in England. In fact the Charity Commission still use VE's creation as a case study of good practice on their website.
Of course in 2007 VE undertook another merger, this time with Student Volunteering England, a piece of work I had the privilege of leading.
So merger is not new territory for VE or indeed for NCVO.
What might the implications be?
Well one potential downside is the loss of a unique voice for volunteering. Volunteering is not confined to the voluntary sector, it happens in the public and private sectors too. That's why the term volunteerism is sometimes used as an alternative to voluntarism - the former denotes any area where volunteering happens, the latter speaks to anything concerned with the voluntary sector. There is a great article by Susan Ellis that explains the difference better than I can.
VE becoming a part of NCVO does risk, if not carefully managed and monitored, the voice of volunteering being lost within wider sector debates.
Another way of looking at this though is that the potential merger might well put volunteering at the heart of some key voluntary sector debates.
I am on record as being frustrated that the sector's response to the current and future challenges it faces, especially in terms of funding, has been to try strategies from the past to solve problems of the future. So we see organisations desperately trying to raise more money from a society that has less to give. We see frantic campaigns to protect income for the few rather than efforts to help organisations adapt to the new reality.
Volunteering needs to be a part of the solution for the sector. Volunteering is changing as the people who volunteer change and the society in which they live - and so the context in which they give their time - changes. In my view, organisations ignore this at their peril. Perhaps VE becoming a part of NCVO will enable volunteering to take a central, indeed its rightful, place at the heart of the sector's thinking about how it survives and thrives in future. This would be especially useful if volunteering retains a clear policy voice that becomes properly integrated within NCVO's policy and campaigning work.
Where might the proposed merger leave volunteer management?
To be honest, this has been one of the less developed areas of VE's work. Since it was created, the section of VE's membership with the loudest voice has been the Volunteer Centres and so volunteer management didn't get much of a look in. Of course some good work got done, not least the work Capacitybuilders funded in 2010/11 as part of the last governments dedicated volunteer management funding.
In reality though it is AVM and, more recently, the superb work of Voluntary Action Warrington that has been pushing forward the volunteer management agenda in England.
So I'm sure there are opportunities for NCVO to get more involved in the volunteer management arena but it has to be in a way that complements the good work already happening, not seeking to duplicate or replace it. Knowing NCVO as I do I don't think that would happen, but the point needs making in case others are looking at that territory with hungry eyes.
Where does the proposed merger leave Volunteer Centres, especially as most are now a part of local Councils for Voluntary Service (or similar) and so are run by members of NAVCA?
Well, I did note that one of the VE trustees who has been involved in the discussions with NCVO is Tessa Willow of VC Liverpool. I have a lot of time and respect for Tessa and in my view she is one of the best possible people to be representing the VC network in these discussions. So VCs should, as much as possible, be reassured by that.
However, there are inevitable questions about the future of VCs within VE. Is now the time for NAVCA to make a play for VCs, bringing them formally into the fold, linking them with NAVCA's developing quality standards and advocating for VCs as a distinct voice of the sector?
As with the rest of this news, I guess only time will give us the answers.
Finally, and most importantly, I want to go on public record as saying that my thoughts are first and foremost with colleagues at friends at VE as they face another period of uncertainty and change. Good luck guys.
So, over to you.
What are your thoughts on the proposed merger?
Let's hear what you think