Third Sector Interface network model and Voluntary Action Scotland: evaluation

Independent evaluation of Scotland’s Third Sector Interface (TSI) network model and Voluntary Action Scotland (VAS).

Appendix 4: Learning from Other Models

UK context

Policy and practice in supporting the Third Sector changed significantly in 2010 with the election of the Coalition Government and the launching of the Big Society initiative. 'Big Society' set out an agenda to transfer power to local communities and enable individuals to 'take control of their lives', and placed the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector at the heart of those ambitions.

However, the implementation of the policy coincided with large-scale cuts in public expenditure which over the period has resulted in a massive reduction in the public sector support for the Third Sector at large, and a direct reduction in levels of financial support for infrastructure organisations.

The reduction in the infrastructure funding was supported by significant investment from the Big Lottery Fund through its 'Transforming local infrastructure fund'. This was a short term programme of investment aimed at supporting a rationalisation and transformation in local infrastructure. The result of the cuts in funding has been that many of the infrastructure organisations closed down, but there has also been a streamlining of infrastructure through mergers and collaboration.

Although central government no longer funds local infrastructure in England, there continues to exist a network of Councils for Voluntary Service and Volunteer Centres (among other infrastructure organisations) but it is not national and exists only where it is funded by local government and other (non-governmental) sources.
Significant differences exist in the policy and funding commitment to the Third Sector in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where the policy is devolved. In Northern Ireland and Wales, there is a strong policy commitment to supporting the Third Sector. In both countries, central government funds infrastructure to support the development of the sector.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, responsibility for policy on the voluntary and community sector ( VCS) rests with the Urban Regeneration and Community Development Group within DSD, which includes The Voluntary and Community Unit. A Concordat exists between the Third Sector and the executive, setting out the roles and responsibilities of each party.

There is a joint Government/Voluntary and Community Sector Forum, which facilitates discussion of issues which impact on the relationship between the voluntary and community sector and Northern Ireland Departments and their agencies.

The main aim of the regional infrastructure support arrangements is to ensure that the Third Sector in Northern Ireland is supported to operate effectively and efficiently, in both urban and rural areas. The current support for the Third Sector, funded by the Northern Ireland Government is delivered through the Regional Infrastructure Support Programme ( RISP) .This programme has five strands and supports core costs of regional infrastructure organisations involved in playing a supporting, co-ordinating or development role in relation to voluntary and community sector organisations. These five strands are:

  • Generic: Support functions likely to be needed by most or all VCS organisations including capacity building support (organisational development, workforce development, networking, sharing good practice, evaluation) and leadership/ representation of Third Sector and influencing policy). This strand is delivered through a consortium arrangement.
  • Support for volunteering: which supports a network of 6 regional organisations across Northern Ireland to promote and support volunteering.
  • Faith based engagement: variation on the generic set of services, recognising that faith-based organisations ( FBO's) have an important place and reach in society and that their community work plays an important role in serving the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities across Northern Ireland.
  • Women in rural and disadvantaged areas: generic set of services, with a focus on specialist support to women's sector organisations which seek to serve the needs of marginalised and isolated women.
  • Generalist Advice strand (delivered by a consortium of advice agencies).

The RISP is currently under review. A co-design approach is being utilised to afford the Sector an opportunity to be directly involved and contribute to the development of new arrangements.


The Welsh Government's vison is for the Third Sector to be a key partner, supporting the development of Welsh Government policy and delivering tangible results to support communities and individuals across Wales.

The Welsh Government's framework for working with the Third Sector is laid out in their Third Sector Scheme, published in January 2014. It covers arrangements for consultation, working in partnership with the Sector and also funding. The Third Sector Scheme is designed to deliver a partnership with the goals of stronger communities, better policy and better public services. To do this, the Scheme covers the Welsh Government's (and its delivery agencies') relationships with the Third Sector in terms of:

  • sharing views and information;
  • joint planning, design, monitoring and evaluation of programmes and schemes where there is Third Sector involvement;
  • direct and indirect funding; and
  • a shared interest in the way wider public services interact with the Third Sector.

The Third Sector Scheme includes the arrangements for funding the Third Sector infrastructure (Infrastructure Partnership Agreement). In 2014/15 the Welsh Government invested a total of £7million in supporting national and local infrastructure: Wales Council for Voluntary Action ( WCVA), County Voluntary Councils ( CVCs) and Volunteer Centres ( VCs).

The relationship between these three organisations and the Welsh Government is governed by a Partnership Agreement, which includes the responsibilities the partner organisations must meet in exchange for receiving core funding from government. This agreement includes specific standards of service.
Additionally the Third Sector Scheme sets out details of strategic engagement between the Third Sector and government:

  • A Third Sector Partnership Council ( TSPC) comprises representatives of 25 identified categories in the Third Sector and three representatives of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action exists to ensure the government hears the sectors views and the sector can influence policy.
  • Ministerial meetings with the Sector: there is an annual cycle of meetings between each Welsh Minister and representatives of Third Sector networks relevant to their portfolios.

Effectiveness of local infrastructure models - what the literature says

Evidence collected for this study highlights that the quality and levels of satisfaction with the support delivered by the TSI network is variable. This finding reflects the findings of other studies on the effectiveness of infrastructure in the UK.

The impact and effectiveness of infrastructure organisations in building the capacity of the Third Sector remains a contested area, and research by Sheffield Hallam University in 2010 concluded that there is little hard evidence of the impact of infrastructure. A key recommendation of the research is that infrastructure organisations need to improve their capacity to demonstrate the impact that they make.

However, evidence from UK research suggests that accessing infrastructure is associated with positive outcomes, including a substantially higher likelihood of success in grant applications and bidding for contracts:

  • 52% of support users reported being very or fairly successful, compared to 22% of non-users.

Impact on equalities

Research also suggest that organisations working with excluded communities and equalities groups are much more likely to access support (with the exception of faith-based groups).

Without capacity building support, the inequalities gap widens. Voluntary and community activity thrives in communities where there are high levels of skills and social capital. Communities of need: those with low levels of educational attainment, poor health, low levels of connectivity, poor access to services are the communities which need support to engage communities and grow the Third Sector.

The Rise of the Enabling State recognises the 'unequal capacity to engage' and states:

"It is apparent that in order to avoid negative equalities outcomes, the role of the state needs to change fundamentally towards supporting capacity in more vulnerable or deprived neighbourhoods"

Evidence also suggests that those organisations that use infrastructure services are much more likely to report good relationships with the public sector: 33% of support users reported that their Local Authority was a positive or very positive influence, compared with 16% overall.


Jacqueline Rae:

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