NGOs urged to help society by pushing social agenda

Fri, Jun 1, 2012, 01:00

ADVOCATING FOR social and political change is becoming “increasingly difficult” for the voluntary sector, but increasingly important for society, the chief executive of a representative body for the sector has warned.

Deirdre Garvey of the Wheel – an umbrella body for 870 community and voluntary organisations – said NGOs must assert the importance of their values in society, and lead a discussion on them, if they are to remain a vital part of it.

Ms Garvey was speaking at a conference, hosted by the Wheel, on the increasing pressure on NGOs to demonstrate their value-for-money to funders.

“Most charities know well the importance of their work to society. However many struggle to measure, evaluate and communicate their impact. As a consequence, the value of their work is not fully understood and appreciated,” she said.

The voluntary sector had taken a “hugely disproportionate hit” in funding cuts over the past three years, of between 15 and 30 per cent, she said. In this context it was more vital than ever that NGOs proved their worth, and “take charge” of their situation.

“I know people feel they just don’t have the time to do this, that their resources are already stretched to breaking point, but we are just going to have to step back and take the time to do this.”

NGOs needed to identify the outcomes they wanted for their work, how best to achieve them and what was the best model for them.

Asked whether, if social or political change was a desired outcome for an NGO, they would be circumscribed from articulating this given their dependence on State funding, she said: “That kind of advocacy work is going to become increasingly difficult in the next few years.

“Philanthropic organisations like Atlantic Philanthropies are shutting up business in the next three years. It underlines the importance for the voluntary sector of not being a victim to these cuts, but of taking charge of the situation and really stepping back to reflect on the kind of society we want to build, and leading that discussion.”

If the sector were to grow stronger it would have to convince wider society of the importance of its values – participative democracy, community empowerment, social justice and equality. “The lack of shared vision about the kind of society we want inhibits the voluntary sector,” she said.

Fergus O’Ferrall, lecturer in health policy at Trinity College Dublin, said the sector faced a “clear choice”.

“It may continue to be shaped as a product of the current dysfunctional State in Ireland or it may become a creative catalyst for radical change. We must break our resource dependency upon a failed State model of development and become the seedbeds of a new kind of active citizenry.”

The Wheel yesterday published a guide for NGOs, Knowing and showing your outcomes and impacts, to help groups track and measure their work.