We are not an arm of the state. We have our own arms.

Managing for Independence

􏰀 Tired of filling out pointless forms?
􏰀 Excluded from decisions that affect your work?
􏰀 Want to create ways of managing which safeguard your autonomy and gets the real work done?

NCIA is an alliance of individuals and organisations who believe that our freedom to join with others in independent voluntary and community activities is in danger. This leaflet sets out the particular dangers of current approaches to management and offers suggestions about what we can do about it.
Chances are, if you’re a manager in a voluntary or community group, that funding forms, targets, outcomes, monitoring, inspections, contracts and tendering will be an increasing part of your working life. Some agencies navigate these pressures successfully and keep their purpose and soul intact. Others find their inspiration dries up in the face of heavy handed performance management practices they should never have adopted.
We believe that these practices are changing the nature of the sector in ways that do not fit its purposes, values or activities. NCIA are calling on the sector to question these practices and work towards alternative models which are more democratic and effective. Being well managed in the voluntary and community sector is more than just being efficient with our services, it is about changing society for the better.

The problem

Many voluntary agencies, particularly those providing services, have adopted models of management antagonistic to social action and change. The origins are to be found in prescriptive and oppressive funding requirements, as well as private sector business practices adopted by the State, at national and local levels. Associated with these models is a language which enforces, confuses and obscures underlying power relations and agendas.
The language and the models shape our view of ourselves, limit our horizons, damage our relationships with each other and with our communities, and are ineffective for our purpose and inefficient with our scarce resources. The dogma of professionalism distances us from our humanity and stifles the fire in the belly, political action and dissent. We are in danger of creating work-drones and corporate managers unable to stand in solidarity with communities.

The loss of discretion and self determination in the way we run ourselves is interfering with the relationships between the citizen, voluntary action and the State. Managerialism is a mechanism whereby social action is controlled.

Commissioning and the contract culture – funds now come with inspection and regulatory strings attached and for work which satisfies State agendas, often at the expense of community interests. Prescribed terms and conditions leave little room for other work outside the contract specifications, especially traditional roles of advocacy, dissent and collective action. Agencies compete with each other. Learning, flexibility, responsiveness, innovation, discretion and co-operation is undermined.

Target practice – voluntary action is increasingly controlled through targets which create prescriptive and uniform expectations which often don’t fit the particular context, the nature of the work or the needs of beneficiaries. Such targets act destructively and make services run in quite irrational ways – only counting things that can be counted, put into a form and ticked off against a list. Targets break down complex social reality into fragmented unrelated pieces within unrealistic timescales. They stifle risk and innovation, creativity and spontaneity. Targets are time-consuming – searching for and recording – and even manipulating evidence to meet funding objectives rather than getting real work done. Targets can lead to anxiety and stress.

We need to know the results of what we do, but most outcomes of social action are unexpected, not known in
advance and only emerge as the work is done. The cult of pre- ordained outcomes pretends to know the future, ignores it when it changes, may act as a form of social control over the actual results required and can lead to repetitive and unreflective activities.

Just tick here – our world is awash with off-the-shelf mechanistic quality toolkits which, with varying degrees of arm-twisting and threats to funding, persuade us to put on clothing which is stiff, expensive and doesn’t suit us at all. Let alone tell us anything about the real quality of services or activities and how to improve what we do. There is no evidence that such approaches give a better result, indeed there is increasing anecdotal evidence that it, and the bureaucracy that surrounds it, leads to a waste of time and money.

The thrust is towards standardisation rather than standards. The concept of “best practice” asserts there is only one way of being good. Tick box quality assurance stops us thinking and applying real quality assurance through the Terrier – an ability to think critically for ourselves, to be curious and to remain dissatisfied, whatever the evidence suggests.

More Chiefs than Indians – management structure, style and level of organisational democracy is changing within the VCS. Co-ordinators have become managers, who changed to directors and are now Chief Executives. Whilst some, mostly smaller, agencies are holding fast to the notions of team work, collaboration and needs-led organisation – many are struggling to hold onto, or have tossed aside, these approaches. Flat structures, particularly in the larger agencies ready to service large contracts, are moving into top down hierarchies populated by layers of managers. We are seeing the Career Manager, where the cause espoused by their agency is simply a step along their way up the ladder, who don’t know the nature of the work being done or the communities they work within and who are focused on defensive and bureaucratic processes at the expense of community needs. Management styles become more authoritarian with an increasing absence of internal democratic structures and accountability.

The critical role of frontline workers – to identify and meet needs, inform practice and shape responses – is under threat. Unions hardly figure. We are seeing increasing pay differentials, excessive salaries and in some workplaces a culture of fear, demoralisation and conformity.

Killing the golden goose – people attracted to voluntary action and social change are not attracted to managerial solutions. Occupational standards for campaigning create professional lobbyists and stifle the need for civil disobedience when faced by injustice. In particular, volunteers are likely to vote with their feet faced by performance measures, inspection regimes and national databases which hold their personal details and make judgements about their suitability based on gossip.
What we want to see instead

We will create alternative models and approaches which fit our purposes and provide ways of working which nourish our souls and self-determination. The principles underpinning the way we run ourselves will be consistent with those we apply in our work with individuals and communities. This will mean that organisational form and culture, management practices and styles will vary.

A suicidal approach – A group of housing support workers carry out an evaluation of the difference their work makes in supporting people coming out of B&B and long stay hospital. They want a well-defined set of tick boxes, listing the outcomes they were looking for. A lone voice insists, against much resistance, that some open questions be asked to give homeless people a chance to have their own say. The open questions prompt this reply about the difference it makes having your own home, and personal support: ‘Last year I tried to commit suicide 3 times and had to go to hospital. This year I haven’t tried once!’. Iick box supporters now reflect whether it would be possible to have a tick box for ‘I’ve not tried to commit suicide this year”.

Systems and practices will be governed by:
􏰀 benefits for, and solidarity with, local people and communities; 􏰀 proof that they lead to good services and can address the factors that affect community
􏰀 measures which ensure that staff and volunteers are able to do their work well, with
motivation and enthusiasm.

We will put effort into developing the creativity, skills and knowledge needed to create and operate models and practices suitable for a particular agency and its relationship with the outside world, including with funders. A commitment to the cause, and solidarity with those who share this, is as important as professional codes of practice. This will be reflected in recruitment and training.

There will be more practitioner/managers who will know the content of what they are managing and will have ways to be close to the action. They will reflect on the advice of Max De Pree: “the first responsibility is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant”.

Passion, excitement, fun and anger are encouraged and required to balance the more detached nature of professional practices. Being open to alternative viewpoints are valued qualities. Criticism, conflict and difference are seen as a chance to talk and explore.

We will have our own language to say what we mean and mean what we say. Our language will challenge and spark debate.

We will move from targets to intentions, where changes over time are seen as indicative of growth, learning, creativity and flexibility.

The results we get with our work are shaped by those who might benefit. Learning and experimentation is encouraged.

Quality assurance, and other forms of accountability, is tailored by and for agency activities. Off-the-shelf systems are always adapted, if not binned. There is a focus on real quality of work with local people and communities, not only how tidy the office is.

Workers at all levels have appropriate levels of discretion and are trusted and competent to make judgements in their areas of work. Frontline workers will have a strong voice in shaping ways of working; are involved in producing new policies and practices; can influence management styles to support them in their work; and participate in internal forums as part of decision-making. A recognised union or other forms of worker representation are in place.

The interests of who we are here for will be more important than those who fund our activities. Our relationship with funders is built on an equal and assertive footing. We are honest with funders and tell them what will work and what won’t. Funders recognise our expertise and roots, and trust that we know how best to manage our work and tell them about the results. Negotiation is expected to be part of the relationship. We say no to money if we are compromised in our purpose.

The costs of managing and running the organisation are seen as reasonable in relation to the direct costs of the work itself. Pay differentials within organisations are kept within an agreed difference between the highest and lowest paid staff. Ethical financial practices are in place, including for investments and pension arrangements, and there are practices that avoid exploitation and discrimination and support ecological sustainability.

How we can get what we want

􏰀 Get talking – with colleagues, with managers, with your unions, with other groups, with NCIA. Find spaces and places in your working life to reflect with others, understand and analyse critically what is happening and work out strategies and actions for resistance and alternatives.
􏰀 Make power visible – who’s got what power, how is it being used, who’s in charge, who can influence what?
􏰀 Organise and act – decide what works, jettison what doesn’t and work up a plan of what you want to see. Join with others to make it happen. Try out different ways of working – do co-operative and reflective practice wherever and whenever you can find the opportunity to do so. Build an argument and support for the changes you want to see. Consider how the law and other legal remedies might support your position. Join with NCIA in our campaigns.

Swim against the tide – Little Fish is a social justice organisation that supports individuals under pressure, while also campaigning on equality issues. The agency made a charity of the year-type arrangement with a commercial organisation, let’s call them Loan Sharks Ltd. This resulted in the online staff forum buzzing with
debate and dissent. One frontline worker pointed out that Loan Sharks had a reputation for trapping poor families into a cycle of growing debt. Another worker said that the staff of Loan Sharks had been reported for intimidating and bullying its customers. Increasing numbers of workers from across the organisation
produced a variety of proof including national news reports about the unethical practices of Loan Sharks and the suffering caused by the company in poor communities. Several questioned whether this company was consistent with the values of Little Fish and the interests of clients. Some wondered if there might be
a media backlash against Little Fish. The contributions came from all parts of the agency. The workers had spoken with one, principled voice. Management responded:

the Loan Sharks agreement was cancelled and they said they would be changing the
vetting procedure for potential corporate partners. Little Fish staff were accustomed to advocating for and empowering their clients, but this time they had also empowered themselves.

􏰀 Get help – find out, and share, the resources and people available to help. Influence your networks – local and national – to take up the argument and to provide support and training which incorporates the principles and practice of Managing for Independence. Check out the NCIA website for useful links and information. Convince your agency to have a NCIA independence audit – to find out what you could do to develop Managing for Independence.

Want to know more and join in the action?

If you or your organisation would like to know more about the Coalition and get involved, look at our website: (you can sign up to our mailings there) and contact us at


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