CEO retires after helping Welsh third sector become ‘credible partner’

The head of the umbrella body for the 30,000-plus Welsh voluntary groups retires this month (March) after helping the sector in Wales become a serious and credible partner alongside the public and private sectors.

When Graham Benfield OBE joined Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) as Chief Executive in 1989, it was based in a small office in Caerphilly, had 16 employees, 200 member organisations and an income of £500,000.

Today, WCVA has offices in Cardiff Bay, Aberystwyth and Rhyl, 130 staff, more than 3,400 members and an income of £28m, largely channelled into the sector for frontline services.  There are almost a million people involved in volunteering activities and the sector employs over 33,000 – 2.5% of the workforce in Wales.

From having an existence barely acknowledged by politicians, WCVA now manages Welsh Government, European and Lottery funding for the sector, and its role in funding County Voluntary Councils and volunteer centres has resulted in an integrated support structure and common standard of service across Wales that is far more advanced than elsewhere in the UK and further afield.

‘In 1989, government was quite disinterested in the sector,’ said Graham Benfield.  ‘It wasn’t hostile, but ministers and civil servants didn’t see the need for any real dialogue, and there was a narrow perception of the sector as a whole.’

WCVA was borne out of the depression of the 1930s, when it helped unemployed people, funded district nurses and supported libraries and co-operative schemes.  Since then, it has helped establish the network of Citizens Advice Bureaux across Wales and the creation of major charities such as Age Cymru and Disability Wales.

Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, Graham joined WCVA after five years at West Glamorgan County Voluntary Council and a period on WCVA’s board.

‘Back then, it was difficult for Welsh organisations to influence policy, because policies were made in London and many of those policies weren’t those that the sector may have agreed with,’ he said.

‘The UK government didn’t like the word poverty, so WCVA’s anti-poverty project was not something it encouraged.  Yet in 2001, a community-led anti-poverty programme – Communities First – was launched.  WCVA is still involved in the programme delivering the Communities First Support Service, including training and advice.’

A major game-changer was the introduction of the national lottery in 1994.  Initially, only arts and sport were proposed as good causes, and WCVA lobbied alongside other organisations to get the definition broadened to include charities.

‘That was absolutely crucial.  It’s been worth about £1 billion to the sector since and has had a very positive effect on the work of thousands of organisations and the people they support.’

Devolution brought a massive shift in the way the sector worked with government.  The Voluntary Sector Scheme was established under the Government of Wales Act in 1998 – the first time in the world where the relationship between government and sector had been put into legislation.

‘That period of investment in the third sector benefited every community in Wales,’ said Graham.  ‘As a result, I think we have a much stronger society than we otherwise would.  Social capital is higher here than in many other places. Communities are more integrated.  That’s the product of 10 years of investment and partnership, and I think Wales has benefited hugely from it.’

The period of growth ended in 2009, and the recession and public spending cuts continue to put greater demands on third sector services at a time when funding is being reduced and sustainability threatened – with no end in sight.

‘However, a consensus is building across Europe which is exciting, mobilising and transforming; based upon treating people and communities and their organisations not as problems but as assets, making resources go much further by sharing them in new ways which strengthen people and communities,’ Graham Benfield added.

‘This emerging new way is not yet here in Wales and is hindered by a fear of change and a desire to stay well within undemanding comfort zones, combined with a reluctance of organisations to think outside the box and speak out about poor decision making and practices.’

After he leaves WCVA, Graham’s first new commitment will be as Chair of the Big Lottery Fund’s Building Communities Trust.

‘If we are to meet the needs and aspirations of the people of Wales, we will need to see a radical shift in the way services are organised and financed,’ he said.  ‘It’s crucial this happens – there is no plan B and if I can contribute to how this process evolves in Wales, I’d be delighted to do so.’