The board of Navca is holding a strategic awayday this week. I’m the honorary adviser to the board and a former vice-chair, so this has made me think about how national infrastructure bodies can best maximise their value. A membership body, Navca is the national representative organisation for local infrastructure bodies such as councils for voluntary services and consequently, if indirectly, many thousands of local voluntary and community organisations. Together with Navca, those members and their members form what has the potential to be a powerful movement for local social action – social action that can achieve progressive change, champion equality, inclusiveness and opportunity, and promote communities as being core to national and local wellbeing.
This movement can be a bulwark against austerity and its damaging impact, which increases levels of poverty and inequality. It can provide services and take action to protect and support communities. It can campaign for a different agenda and values, and advocate for alternative national and local policies.
The national infrastructure body should be at the heart of such a movement and play a key role in supporting that movement and the members that form it. This is not easy, and national VCS infrastructure bodies face similar challenges to those of their members, with the most significant being funding.
And like many VCS organisations they have to be ready to change. This has certainly been the case at Navca, where the staff team is now a quarter of the size it was eight years ago. However, with prudent and progressive leadership from trustees and its chief executive, it has changed what it does and how it operates – not least by embracing the digital age – while enhancing its core impact.
In preparing for the Navca awayday, I have given some thought to how national infrastructure bodies can best maximise their value. To this end I have identified a dozen tenets that can act as a guide for the bodies. I must stress that the thoughts expressed here are my own and should not be read as reflecting the official views of the Navca board or staff team. Nor are they designed for any specific infrastructure body.
In my personal view, and speaking directly to national VCS infrastructure bodies, you should:
• Represent and be accountable to your members, and be transparent and open in all that you do.
• Work with and not separately from your members (involve members in designing, and delivering programmes and projects).
• Be relevant to your members and offer them value for money for their membership fees; and never over-promise nor under-deliver.
• Remain focused on your members’ needs and be willing to adapt and change, rather than being consumed by self-praise and internal politics.
• Act as the demonstrable collective voice for your members and strive at all times to be credible to politicians and political parties, government, other national VCS bodies, national local government and other public sector bodies, and the media. And ensure that this voice is heard regionally, sub-regionally and locally.
• Be prepared to be edgy and outspoken on behalf of your members and to them; and engage proactively and constructively in contemporary policy debates and seek to shape policy.
• Support members in specified and defined ways, while recognising that, with constrained resources, direct support might be limited unless members are able to pay economic costs.
• Broker and facilitate joint approaches between members.
• Lead by example and always be ready and willing to challenge those member organisations that are not living the values of the sector and its movements, and/or which are demonstrating poor behaviour, failing to evolve or being aggressive to other members.
• Seek alternative sources of funding that are consistent with both your organisations and your members’ values and interests (and avoid competing with members).
• Be focused on outcomes and share these with members and more widely. Impact is what matters. Be ready to cease doing anything that is not achieving your objectives
• Be unique on behalf of your members and not seek to compete with or duplicate what others are doing, unless it can be done better; and collaborate with other similar sector bodies and others to achieve shared goals.
Change is inevitable. Those organisations, including national infrastructure bodies, that do not take control of their own change will cease to be relevant to their members. They will wither on their own rotting and dying vines. And just in case you are wondering, I am confident that this will not be the case with Navca, as it has ably demonstrated over the past year.