As the National Council for Voluntary Organisation approaches its centenary, its history shows that many of the debates among voluntary organisations now are the same ones as have been playing out for decades.
History until fairly recently has not been particularly kind to the voluntary movement. Its story has tended to be told either through the lens of great men (and the occasional great woman) or as part of a Whig narrative, which has positioned it merely as a staging post in the development of the welfare state. Things have improved in recent years. And through the work of historians such as Jane Lewis, Pat Thane, Bernard Harris, Frank Prochaska and Geoffrey Finlayson, we now have a growing body of literature on the many and varied contributions played by voluntary action in political, economic and social development. And we even have a flourishing Voluntary Action History Society dedicated to advancing work in this field which I set up, along with a couple of colleagues, over 20 years ago.
In 2019 the National Council for Voluntary Organisations celebrates its centenary and Cass Business School has been commissioned to write a new history charting its role in the development of voluntary action over the past 100 years. It is a story that plays on all the big themes which have confronted voluntary groups and volunteers in the past and continue to resonate today. What should the relationship be between the state and the voluntary movement? How has this relationship – this moving frontier in Finlayson’s phrase – shifted over time? How does the voluntary movement contribute to civil society and citizenship? How has government, and indeed the sector, viewed the role of volunteering? As an essential component of participatory democracy and an agent for protest and change; or as a means of getting stuff done? Or even perhaps as a form of social control? And what of the increasing professionalisation in the sector? What has driven this trend and what have been the implications, good and bad?
The history will rely extensively on the written archives of the National Council which are housed at the London Metropolitan Archives and will be supplemented by the records of other relevant charities; one of the most impressive legacies of the Council is the number of household-name charities it helped establish, from Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Young Farmers’ Clubs to Age Concern and the Youth Hostel Association. We will also be carrying out a series of Oral Histories with individuals from the post-war period who have something interesting to say about the work of the Council. And we are on the lookout for personal papers and memorabilia that might have escaped the official archives. So if you are in possession of anything of interest, or know someone who is, please do get in touch.
The history has come at a good time and will sit well alongside the new enquiry into the future of civil society. It will help us to take a longer-term perspective on some of the big issues that are confronting civil society and the voluntary sector at the current time (as an aside the whole issue of language and terminology is revealing. When did the National Council start to talk of a ‘sector’, and when did concepts such as civil society and active citizenship appear in public policy discourse, and why?). It might be comforting (or perhaps dispiriting depending on your point of view) to know that the National Council was setting up a working group to consider concerns about fund-raising practice and the impact on public trust and confidence as early as the 1960s. While debates about the impact on the independence of charities of government funding (including on the Council itself) were raging earlier still and can be traced back at least as far as the Thirties when the Council, in a move which was to prove hugely controversial, first took significant public funds to co-ordinate the voluntary movement’s response to mass unemployment.
We can overdo the claims for history. It clearly can’t help us predict the future. Nor can it help us avoid repeating all the mistakes of the past. But without a thorough understanding of what has gone before we will never be able fully to understand and confront the challenges we face today.
If you have anything you would like to contribute to the history of NCVO please contact me at [email protected].