Rachel Le Noan says we must reframe how the voluntary sector is characterised to reflect its social and economic contributions more accurately
The Scottish Government has been clear that "its vision is to transition to a wellbeing economy – thriving across economic, social and environmental dimensions – which serves and prioritises the collective wellbeing of current and future generations."
And yet the lack of understanding and recognition of the voluntary sector’s economic contribution and fundamental role in how our society functions remains. As a result, there is little chance of this vision becoming a reality until we see change.
Ewan Aitken (chief executive of Cyrenians) rightly points out in his latest column for TFN magazine that "a strong economy requires a settled civil society for business to operate and thrive". Charities, social enterprises and community groups are doing their level best to continue to operate and support their staff through a time of reduced income and increased demand; but this is simply unsustainable.
We must reframe how the voluntary sector is characterised to reflect its social and economic contributions more accurately. We also need to achieve parity of esteem with the private and public sectors. Why? Because at a time when the Scottish and local governments seem so enthusiastic about the prospects of a wellbeing economy, any hope of solving the challenges we face as a society rests on acknowledging that neither sector can work miracles on their own. We are all interdependent.
Data from SCVO’s State of the Sector statistics and the Scottish Third Sector Tracker is already helping us set the scene. But we know more needs to be done in terms of measuring the impact of the sector and gathering evidence, and we are also working with the Scottish Government. It is not easy as it requires us all to think differently. But it is not impossible. As an example, the Fraser of Allander Institute has started to ask new questions in the Scottish Business Monitor. In the latest survey, it asked firms if they identified as being in the third or voluntary sector to understand better how these organisations are coping with current economic challenges relative to the rest of the business base. The latest Economic Commentary (June 2023) highlights "how all sectors need to come together to make a difference, complementing each other’s expertise, as well as a focus on the less technical skills or 'softer' skills that are needed in order to grow our economy".
SCVO is keen to help decision makers across sectors understand the invaluable economic contribution made by voluntary organisations to Scottish society, including but not limited to its substantial role as an employer. Over the coming year the policy and research teams will continue to gather evidence and develop narratives on the role of the sector in the economy. In doing so we hope to strengthen relationships with partners such as the Fraser of Allander Institute, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), SPICe, SCDI and many others.
We are also responding to the way the economy develops to ensure voluntary organisations have opportunities to influence decision-making in areas such as: National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET); Community Wealth Building (CWB); UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA); National Performance Framework (NPF).
After publishing the thought leadership series in 2022, this year we submitted responses to the NPF review and to the consultation on CWB (Anna Fowlie, SCVO chief executive also sits on the Community Wealth Building Bill Steering Group). Recently we took part in a roundtable organised by the RSE on the sector’s contribution to the economy and look forward to working more closely with them on this agenda. The policy team is also supporting Ewan Aitken in his role as the voluntary sector’s representative on NSET Delivery Board, focusing not only on the significance of the sector as a provider of services, but also as a key partner in decision-making processes that must be improved. By doing so, we will promote the value of the sector as fostering innovation and solutions to the numerous challenges faced by communities and people across Scotland today.
Scotland's voluntary sector, with over 46,500 organisations, covers every area of society. Employing over 135,000 staff and generating £8.6 billion in 2021, it’s a significant economic force. Though the economic and social impact is largely unmeasured, the 1.2 million volunteers that work with our organisations are vital to Scotland’s social and economic success. The 6,000 social enterprises in Scotland that put profits and surpluses towards social and environmental missions further highlight the sector’s current and potential role in the economy.
The voluntary sector must be the beating heart of the wellbeing economy we want to build. Our organisations have the capabilities and capacity to contribute to economic recovery in a way that is inclusive, sustainable, and good for environmental and human wellbeing, as well as traditional financial economic growth.
Rachel Le Noan is policy and public affairs officer for The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).