We often hear about the fragility of natural habitats or ecosystems, such as rainforests, which gives us the impression that by comparison to our man made world, these wild places are some how sub-standard, teetering on a precipice, where at any moment they could collapse. Sometimes the motivation for such descriptions comes from those who probably should know better, those who are actually trying to shock us into action to support these places, or at least to give money to their organisation in the name of ‘saving the rainforest’. Anyone with any ecological training or knowledge knows this is bunkum.
Rainforests and other complex ecosystems (savannahs, coral-reefs, even good old British Forests, in fact all large natural ecosystems) are actually extremely resilient and strong. It is self-evident that rainforests must be very tough, for they have survived the most horrific assaults upon them by humanity, from logging and hunting to pollution and fossil fuel driven climate change. Their survival is precisely because of there complexity, not in spite of it. They depend not on any one individual, and rarely on any one species or family/genus (group) of species, but on an intricate, superbly complex and interwoven network of species all of whom hold dependencies for and upon others within the ecosystem. This is characterised as making them fragile or weak, unable to stand on their own two feet, but in fact it’s the very reason that the system doesn’t collapse when it is disrupted, even when that disruption becomes extremely destructive. Alas, that pressure is now, all too often, becoming so pervasive and extensive that collapses are being observed; for even a system that is inherently self-protective and regenerating can’t keep going forever in the face of unrelenting power.
By this point you may well be checking the title of this blog, website or e-news piece to check what you are reading. And whilst I do have a background in biology, I must now turn to what this all has to do with the voluntary and community sector. First I note unusually, I am using that phrase, rather than including social enterprise under the acronym VCSE. This is really because social enterprise is to a degree in its infancy and as such I personally don’t feel confident that what I am about to say can be guaranteed to hold true for SE in the same way I think it does for V&C (though instinctively I think it will). So here is my claim: The Voluntary and Community Sector is a Rainforest – its complexity is its strength. Again we often hear commentary, that we are hard to understand, difficult to navigate, even harder to work with. We hear that we are unsustainable, too dependent on government funding or ‘grants’ (assumed to be negative) or worse still ‘hand outs’. And yes we are sometimes said to be weak and fragile, at risk, unreliable. I have to say that most of this generally comes from statutory organisations, rather than business (except the handouts bit, where it is assumed we haven’t really earned those funds in the way a ‘proper’ business does – but I will leave that myth for another day). And in this we can perhaps understand the partial and ill-judged perspective, as by comparison to the state funded, tax-guaranteed income and legislatively agreed institutions of the state, any one VC organisation does look rather puny and vulnerable.
And so the metaphor stands – any one organisation perhaps, but a sector, a system, a network of support, interwoven with other organisations, formal and informal, integrated and rooted with service users, beneficiaries, patients, residents – its not fragile at all – its sustainable, its resilient, its bloody marvellous. And it’s a fact: the Voluntary and Community Sector is not the third sector, it’s the first. It existed way before the state, by several hundred years at the least. And no political whim or power grab can sweep it aside unlike what may befall statutory bodies from time to time. In all likelihood it pre-dates the private/business sector too. Mutual cooperation, driven by good purpose, facilitated by exchange of resources but with people and progress and fairness and inclusion at its heart. Like I say, it’s a Rainforest.
And so, to take the metaphor just one further step. Public Sector Commissioning treats the sector not like a Rainforest but like a Zoo. It chooses which individual species, even individual specimens of species, that it is going to support. It even makes them perform a merry dance to justify why they are worthy of being included in the Zoo (you know you’ve walked straight past whole sections of more enlightened zoos where ecologically important but dull animals are either asleep, brown or hiding – they tend not to last when the Marketing Director has their say). It sucks them out of their ecosystem, forces them to live in unnatural conditions, eat the food they choose to feed them, perform at pre-arranged visitor times… anyway you get the general idea.
My point is, Commissioning is on the whole a bit like poaching, when it should be more like conservation. It should treat the sector like the Rainforest it is and all its intent and purpose should be turned to supporting, restoring and even increasing complexity and relationships, because these are the things that ensure any ecosystem flourishes. If Commissioners really do want communities full of self-supporting networks, independent mutual aid, services funded from multiple sources, supporting all members of a community, they must change and they must support the ecosystem above all else. Zoos are controlled and you know exactly what you’ve got, you can measure it, photograph it, literally stick it on a T-shirt, but whatever amount of marketing it will only ever be a poor imitation of the real thing and like real zoos, state commissioned services are totally dependent on their ‘wild’ counterparts. Without the Rainforest, ultimately there are no Zoos, so Commissioners, please become conservationists and leave your zookeeper fantasies behind, because if you don’t change your ways then one day when your Zoo has run its course and you turn to check on the natural habitats that must now suffice, they may no longer exist.
Garry Jones, Chief Exectutive, Support Staffordshire