On 28th October 2014 Sheffield Hallam University hosted a symposium to bring together a range of academics, practitioners, funders and students, all working on issues related to the third sector. The subject of the symposium was the relationship between the third sector, the state and the market in this era of austerity. The event was chaired by Jane Hustwit of Involve Yorkshire and the Humber, with the explicit purpose of;
'...investigating the challenges and opportunities arising from the current government's policy towards the third sector'
Speakers came from a range of academic disciplines, campaign organisations and service providers to discuss a variety of topics; the increased marketisation of services, current issues in volunteering, the ownership and use of assets, and current third sector responses to social/economic policy and new procurement and commissioning regimes. This 'storify' aims to capture the learning from the event. We have used the 100 or so tweets that were made on the day as the basis for this story. Whilst several participants contributed we are indebted to David Floyd from Social Spider CIC for his prodigious tweeting on the day!
Jane Hustwit got us underway with some historical context-setting, highlighting the current pressures on third sector organisations arising from changing demography and cultural norms. Participants picked up on Jane's observation that the third sector is increasingly seen as 'just another' delivery mechanism for services.
Jane urged us to 'create our own future', explore 'new ways, new partnerships and new opportunities' and communicate our distinctive and valuable contribution - including what we do and how we do it - more widely and clearly. She particularly stressed the need for the sector to communicate through social media, including twitter. She highlighted the need for the third sector, sitting at the intersection of state, market and community, to respond to local needs, and maximise tiny cracks and opportunities created by the state and the markets while at the same time remaining critical of these opportunities and the approaches we take to social change.
This was followed by our keynote speaker Dr Angela Eikenberry, from the University of Nebraska. Angela argued that, as marketisation has increasingly permeated everyday discourse as a normative ideology, market-based approaches had become the default approach for tackling social challenges. Such approaches include commercial activities and contracting, social enterprise and cause-related marketing upon which Angela's presentation focused. However, as markets function around the self-interested consumer, and individual rights and responsibility, rather than the collective action of citizens, this is somewhat paradoxical. Furthermore, as economic and managerial discourses of the market play an increasingly prominent role, the State is hollowing out, social ties are eroded and the public realm is de-politicised.
One of the iconic images of the day came from Angela's slides on cause-related marketing. She highlighted how fracking companies were making donations to cancer charities, and producing pink drill bits as a sign of their support. The irony and 'action vs values' incoherence of this cause-related marketing, and other examples, was not lost on participants.
Angela argued how the logics of the market undermine different forms of relation and exchange other than monetary ones.
Angela asked us to focus on democratic processes as a means of tackling the discourse about markets, arguing that non-profits should be working more closely with funders (e.g. through giving circles) to develop more meaningful philanthropic relationships and effective ways of tackling social problems. Angela accepted however that, on its own, this would not be enough to halt the increasing arguments about the virtue of the market.
After the morning break, we split into two sessions; the first discussing volunteering (its limits and potential), and in the other, how third sector organisations are taking ownership of and using physical assets for a community's benefit. In the first session we heard from researchers investigating the role of older volunteers in conservation projects (Louise Duffy and Maria Gallo), and from Amanda Bingley and Alison Collins about 'hidden philanthropy'. Jon Dean concluded the session on the dangers of creating a market for volunteers. Participants reflected on how volunteering must be based on the idea of mutual gain (by the volunteer and host organisation) rather than just purely altruistic action by the volunteer.
Louise Duffy from the National University of Ireland shared reflections from a unique case study, and presented five attributes to hidden philanthropy; commitment and tenacity; stewardship and building relationships; having a shared vision; placing value on affinity with an organisation; consistent and committed leadership. Louise concluded by proposing that these form the basis of a checklist for other organisations.
Following this introductory presentation, Amanda Bingley of Lancaster University and Rebecca Oaks from the Institute of Chartered Foresters introduced a very different volunteering context: conservation volunteering. We found out that it is predominantly older people who get involved in this kind of voluntary activity, and that a key motivating factor is the contribution to feelings of well-being for volunteers. However, they introduced a cautionary note by suggesting that there is now a greater state reliance on this kind of voluntary activity which is introducing some tensions between paid workers and volunteers.
Whilst Jon Dean of Sheffield Hallam University was unsure how his presentation was received on the floor, it certainly got a good write up from the twitter contingent! Jon explored the personal attitude towards volunteering, asking the audience to reflect on the extent to which people approached volunteering in terms of a good to be consumed and used to develop a persons C.V. rather than an act of social good.