Putting Faith in the VCSE

It was David Lammy MP who first proposed the idea: why don’t we draw up a “charter” to help overcome some of the challenges met by faith groups who want to work with councils?

The suggestion came off the back of a series of roundtables held by the APPG for Faith and Society in 2012, during which faith leaders described the barriers they faced when engaging with councils and other statutory organisations. High on the list were concerns that faith groups might use public money to make converts, and fears about lack of professionalism. Some groups simply struggled to be seen and heard, without knowing why.

The proposed charter was the germ of an idea that eventually became the Faith Covenant for local authorities. We’ve seen great progress since then, but the narrative has not fully gone away. We still hear of a lack of visibility for faith organisations within civil society, as well as a brand of faith-based unease on the part of some areas of the public sector. We often call it “squeamishness”.

What’s the result of this? Some faith groups fall foul of prohibitive funding criteria. Others, in a bid to gain a seat at the table, might downplay their faith ethos. Whilst this may be a successful route for some, it can result in faith becoming even less visible and perhaps even losing its distinctiveness, the very faith-y-ness that sets it apart.

There is a more serious outcome, as Dr Salman Waqar of British Islamic Medical Association unpacked at our Building Back Better conference last year:

Squeamishness about faith has had consequences. People aren’t talking to communities, they are not talking about faith, they’re not being open, they’re not embracing that discomfort … those communities that could be at the table have not been able to do that.

The results of an invisible and overlooked faith sector, he goes on to say, are not just difficulties with charitable sustainability, but also health inequalities:

Squeamishness actually determines who ends up in ITU (intensive therapy unit), and who gets treatment and who ends up living and dying.

How should we respond? We believe the Faith Covenant continues to be effective at fostering partnership at a local authority level. But we also wonder, are there other issues at play?

The power in a name

Organisations whose primary purpose is social good are bundled together under a dizzying variety of labels. “Voluntary, community and social enterprise sector”, often abbreviated to VCSE, or simply the “voluntary sector”, is the most common. But there’s also “third sector”, “civil society”, “independent sector”, “non-profit sector”, “community sector”, “social sector”—the list goes on. With so many types of organisation, it can be hard to find a term that does them all justice. There are clearly problems, for example, with labelling the diversity of activity within this sector as simply “voluntary”.

“VCSE” seems to have had the most sticking power, and is the acronym preferred by most local authorities, government bodies and NHS organisations. Activities like commissioning services and consulting with communities will routinely be talked about in terms of “engaging/working with the VCSE”, for example. On a national level, one of the primary channels used by the health and care system to gather the voice of communities is the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Alliance.

The difficulty is that somewhere, within this web of charities, non-profits, social enterprises and more, are organisations with a faith basis. The term “VCSE” is often meant to include these organisations, too, yet when commissioners, funders, policymakers and politicians hear “VCSE” they don’t necessarily think “faith”. The nuance and distinctiveness of faith-based social action does not always get recognition within such a broad and diverse sector, and such a tangle of terminology.

Perhaps there is a simple solution. A number of years ago we noticed a trend, among some NHS trusts and local authorities, to insert an “F” within the “VCSE” acronym, making it “VCFSE”. Recently, this expanded acronym has been cropping up more frequently. Lancashire and South Cumbria Integrated Care System, for example, have used “VCFSE” to describe civil society organisations within their patch. Last year, the National Academy for Social Prescribing invited funding applications from the “voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise sector”. In March this year, a report from the APPG for Loneliness referred to the “F” of faith within the VCSE throughout.

We recently raised this with an official working for a large local authority (who themselves use the VCFSE acronym). Is this trend, we asked, a reflection of a growing recognition of the value of faith-based organisations? Has there been a shift in how faith is perceived as a result of the pandemic? “Absolutely,” came the reply. “The question now is not, ‘why would we statutory organisations work with faith?’ but ‘why wouldn’t we?’”

A moment for faith?

It might be that the pandemic has brought about a sea change in how faith communities are viewed by statutory organisations. The APPG for Faith and Society’s Keeping the Faith report shows a large increase in partnership working between local authorities and faith communities during the pandemic. We have also seen growing interest from local authorities in adopting the Faith Covenant. On a national level, I recently heard an NHS director affirm that the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine would not have been such a success were it not for the involvement of faith communities in supporting messaging and opening their doors as vaccine centres.

There is no question that faith has been at the forefront of community response to the pandemic—from informal mutual aid to the meeting of practical needs, to more nuanced communications and messaging campaigns. There is work to be done in capturing this, and making the case for the visibility and ongoing involvement of faith.

But whilst Faith Covenants, new acronyms and more evidence may well help, there will be no quick solution to the question of how to make the faith sector more visible and heard within civil society. We think the trend towards putting the “F” in “VCSE” is a positive one (do feel free to adopt this yourself, if you think it would be helpful!) but this small change alone will not be enough.

One thing is clear: it is time that the energy and dedication of faith-based social action gets wider recognition, and faith groups gain a “seat at the table” as a matter of course. For us, the COVID-19 pandemic has vividly demonstrated two things: the potentially disastrous consequences for communities who have been historically invisible within decision making, and the immense and enduring contribution of faith to society, especially at a time of such great need.

This demands something greater than one more letter added to an acronym, but perhaps it’s a start.

We’d love to hear from you. Have you noticed a similar shift in perception regarding the faith sector during the past twelve months? Have you noticed the use of the VCFSE acronym? What do you think of this trend?

About Jeremy Simmons

Policy and Programme Manager

Jeremy works to raise the profile and voice of the faith-based sector in policy making and gather evidence of local faith-based solutions. He leads FaithAction’s programme of work with the Department of Health and Social Care, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and NHS England, and is part of the team supporting FaithAction’s secretariat role for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Faith and Society, and Faith Covenant. He is passionate about helping the faith-based sector work in partnership with other agencies.