From the Factivist, Spring 2012
By Michael Colborne, Volunteer Writer
The voluntary sector has long been a critical piece of Canadas social safety net. From churches feeding the hungry and caring for the disabled, to community-based agencies providing services to refugees and giving shelter for victims of abuse, the voluntary sector has played an essential role in supporting vulnerable people across Canada since Confederation. This situation is by no means unique to Canada; the voluntary sector plays a similarly important role in other Western industrialized nations, like the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States.
However, there has been a dramatic shift in the roles of voluntary sector agencies across Canada and other Western countries since the early 1990s. There have been new roles, new responsibilities, and new challenges thrust upon voluntary sector organizations. This shift has eroded the social safety net and negatively impacted some of the most vulnerable sectors of society.
Governments across many Western industrialized countries, including Canada, have continued to reduce the role that the state plays in the social safety net (Milligan and Conradson, 2006). These efforts began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when governments like the Chretien Liberals and Tony Blairs Labour government in the United Kingdom felt considerable pressure to reduce public expenditures, reform bureaucracies that were perceived to be bloated and inefficient, and foster market-based solutions to social problems. It was argued and assumed by these and other governments that private and voluntary sector agencies would be able to deliver services to vulnerable populations more effectively, more innovatively, and, most importantly, at a lower cost. As a result, voluntary sector agencies have begun to play a much larger and more direct role in delivering social services to vulnerable people. Voluntary sector agencies are now seen less as active political advocates for vulnerable populations who provide additional service over and above those provided by the state, and more as passive deliverers on a time-limited, contract-by-contract basis of social services that were once delivered by the state a role that leaves the voluntary sector as a shadow civil service (Laforest, 2011).
While Western governments may have found success in balancing their budgets, much of this has been founded on the backs of voluntary sector agencies and vulnerable populations. Voluntary sector agencies now bear the responsibilities for program success or failure, as well as the financial risks of running a program or service (e.g., cost overruns), to the point where some commentators see the voluntary sector as having become a dumping ground where governments can avoid difficult issues and responsibilities (Macmillan and Townsend, 2006). By downloading service delivery to both large and small agencies alike, governments can show clean balance sheets while voluntary sector agencies are often forced to sharply reduce costs. Agencies are often forced to reduce the numbers of qualified staff, offer lower pay, or even eliminate other much-needed services for vulnerable people to save money (Davies, 2010). Time-limited contracts, as well, impact the ability of voluntary sector agencies to build internal capacity to deliver and monitor programs and services, and to build sufficient cash flow to allow for proper organizational planning (Davies, 2010).
The slow dismantling of the social safety net and the downloading of much of this responsibility onto the voluntary sector has resulted in what has been described as a disorganized welfare mix, where programs and services are inconsistent between different locations or even different periods of time (Bode, 2006). For example, many health and social services to Aboriginal people in Canada are provided by voluntary sector agencies working on time-limited contracts at different times and in different parts of the country, meaning that Aboriginal people do not necessarily have equal access to the same quality of health and social services across the country. These sorts of inequalities have been documented across other Western countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and France (Bode, 2006; Macmillan and Townsend, 2006). As well, voluntary sector agencies face considerable human resource pressures and challenges, as described above, that can curtail the types of programs and services and the quality of programs and services they can offer to vulnerable populations.
We cannot go back and rewrite the intertwining history of the voluntary sector and the social safety net. We cannot ignore the fact the governments in Canada and the Western world will continue to try and download responsibilities onto the voluntary sector to reduce government expenditures, particularly during the ongoing global economic crisis. However, what we can do is work together to ensure that governments municipal, provincial, federal, and international governments alike understand that that they have a fundamental role to play in supporting the social safety net and voluntary agencies at the community level. If the voluntary sector is expected to be a critical piece of the social safety net, governments must do more to support voluntary sector agencies, including:
- Building opportunities for governments and voluntary sector agencies to meet in common forums and work together towards common goals
- Assisting the voluntary sector with human resource challenges (e.g., targeted funding for staff attraction and retention, like wage top-ups)
- Providing stable core funding to both enhance delivery of contracted services and help build internal capacity to deliver and monitor programs and services.
To carry the metaphor to its end, governments must be more than just a shopkeeper who provides twine for voluntary sector agencies with limited resources to build a thin, patchwork social safety net governments must roll up their sleeves and work with voluntary sector agencies to strengthen that net for all Canadians.
Bode, I. (2006). Disorganized welfare mixes: voluntary agencies and new governance regimes. Western Europe Journal of European Social Policy. November 2006 16: 346-359.
Davies, S. (2010) Government policy, recession and the voluntary sector. A report for UNISON (UK).
Laforest, R. (2011). Voluntary sector organizations and the state. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Macmillan, R., Townsend, A. (2006). A new institutional fix? The community turn and the changing role of the voluntary sector. In Milligan, C. and Conradson, D. (Eds.) (2006) Landscapes of Voluntarism: New Spaces of Health, Welfare and Governance (Bristol: The Policy Press).
Milligan, C., Conradson, D. (2006). Contemporary landscapes of welfare: the voluntary turn? In Milligan, C. and Conradson, D. (Eds.) (2006) Landscapes of Voluntarism: New Spaces of Health, Welfare and Governance (Bristol: The Policy Press).