What does the future hold for Scotland’s third sector? This was a question SCVO asked delegates at the Gathering 2019 and which the Policy Forum has been tasked to answer. With the current uncertainty caused by the ongoing Brexit saga and looking ahead to the Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, we need to identify the key issues likely to affect the third sector over the coming decade(s).

At the Gathering, my fellow Policy Forum members and I facilitated a session to identify what current employees and stakeholders of the sector felt were their key concerns and hopes for the sector; what we can do to showcase the strengths of the sector; and what the sector needs from the Scottish Government. The output will be used to inform a manifesto for the sector for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.

A key concern identified and one I personally feel is of fundamental importance going forward is to establish a clear understanding of what the third sector is, who we are and what we do. The third sector is made up of such a diverse range of organisations, ranging from small one or two person-operated local groups to large multinational charities, that it can often be challenging to establish exactly what the third sector is and does. As a starting point, I would question the use of the term third sector as this suggests something additional, that is an afterthought and not as important. Rather, the sector should be recognised as an exemplar. It is a major employer; a leader in terms of flexible working practices, talent, research and innovation; and provides, and often replaces, services which the private sector refuses to or are incapable of providing, and those which the public sector can no longer effectively provide due to budget cuts and resource constraints.

Of course, funding was identified as a key issue. Discussions on funding are unavoidable and highlight the continued challenge faced by the sector when short-term, year-to-year funding continues to dominate and proves extremely problematic for long-term sustainability. This in turn impacts on the type of contracts and employment offered by the sector which again are often short or fixed-term contracts which offer little security to either the individual or the sector. As a result, the sector loses talent, faces a high turnover in personnel, and is unattractive to new entrants who seek more secure, permanent contracts elsewhere. The third sector workforce is ageing and so there is a need to inspire more young people into the sector and encourage them to see it as a good career option, but this remains a challenge and one which must be overcome if we are to secure the future of the sector for decades to come. The economy and workforce will be examined by the Policy Forum in our first evidence session, with input from key experts, and findings reported in the manifesto.

The third sector has several unique strengths and I believe it is the role of the Policy Forum and the manifesto we will produce, alongside our third sector colleagues, to more strongly promote these strengths. The sector needs to more greatly emphasise its breadth of involvement across policy areas, and the unique relationship it has with communities, establishing links and achieving impacts, many of which can only be achieved by the third sector.

So, where does the sector go from here? Delegates identified a need for the Scottish Government to recognise all that the third sector has to offer. We need to be invited to the party as key players and be recognised as equitable practitioners, with a range of skills and expertise. I believe a commitment to longer term funding would be an excellent starting point in achieving this. The upcoming Scottish Parliament elections in 2021 may well result in a change of administration and political priorities which could have a profound impact on the third sector and the funding it receives. Long-term and cross-party commitments to the third sector need to be more commonplace. Of course, funding is part of this, but it also goes beyond funding to include fundamental change to policy-making practices and engagement with the sector.

At the heart of everything discussed here, and something that emerged quite clearly during the first Forum meeting, is a tension between the visionary and the practical, and identifying strategic and operational concerns and priorities for the sector. The sector needs to be realistic about what can be achieved but this shouldn’t prevent us from being ambitious. Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, we need to establish the balance between reality and ambition to clearly identify the strategic direction for the sector. Over the coming months, the Policy Forum will work to do just that, producing a manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election that will critically address these issues and identify a strategic direction for the sector for the years ahead.