10 minutes with…  Colin Rochester

Colin has worked in and with the voluntary and community sector for over forty years. He has worked as a consultant, practitioner and as an academic. His most recent book, Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum was published in December 2013.

If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be?  


The first is “calm”, the second is “skeptical”, and the third is - I hope - “imaginative”. You have to be careful when you get a question like this - should you be modest or should you be arrogant? But no, I think that’s fairly real.


What is occupying your time at the moment?  


There are two things. The first is that I am editing a book with David Billis on hybrid organisations and this is a massive task, taking much too long. It’s a big book- there are 29 chapters drawn from people all over the world and writing about a variety of hybrid organisations.


From this point of view “hybrid organisations” share the characteristics of more than one sector. One example would be third sector organisations which have become part of the market and have characteristics of the private sector or become part of the public sector under contract to government. This changes the nature of the organisation from what it originally was. There are nine different variations of this. It works on the assumption that each organisation has its roots in one sector but it may have important characteristics from one or two other sectors. There is some very interesting stuff in there, which is why I took it on. I thought I knew a little about it but there was an awful lot more to learn so it was a challenge and a new interest. The publisher is called Edward Elgar (not the composer). They are a major publisher and they publish a lot of these handbooks. 


The second thing I’m working on is the development of infrastructure organisations. The Voluntary Action History Society is running a day conference on the history of infrastructure organisations and how they seem to be declining and dying, in many cases. We’re looking at what the “golden age” was like and why they are now, apparently, declining.


I don’t like the term “infrastructure organisations” but these are often called “second tier ” or “umbrella” organisations whose aim is to serve or work with other organisations rather than directly with a client group. The well-known ones are councils of voluntary service and volunteer centres, but there are a great many more specialist ones.


I’m working on this with my partner, Meta Zimmeck, but there are a lot of other people with ideas on this who are coming together for a day conference which will take place in June. We’ve got to do some work beforehand and when we get the results of the conference we will see where we go with that. It’s something I have been interested in over a few years – rather too many years, actually.


Why are infrastructure organisations on the decline?


They are on the decline for two reasons. One is they’re no longer in favour with government, especially central government but also local government. Local government is under pressure and can cut these people out and go straight to the direct service provision. The other reason is local government increasingly has its own set of mechanisms for dealing with local organisations, contracting in particular. If you’re doing the contracting, especially if it’s competitive tendering, there isn’t much use for some sort of intermediary or umbrella organisation to deal with it, in the view of the people who deal with it. That’s the simple answer- it’s probably more complicated than that.


When did you become a member of ARVAC and why?  


I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it would be about 1984-85. There are three reasons why I became interested. The first reason is that it was at the point when I was shifting my career (if I can call the rag bag of things I did a “career”!) from working as a practitioner to being a researcher and an academic. At that time I was studying part time at Brunel University for a masters in voluntary sector organisation. When I completed it, I moved over into freelance work and research and eventually into academia. I was interested because things were changing.


I was interested secondly because there wasn’t anywhere else for people who were interested in research on the voluntary sector to go to back then. That was the pioneering aspect of it. There weren’t very many people involved in research. That’s how I got involved and I’ve stayed involved in one way or another ever since.


The third reason why I stayed involved – because I have also been involved in other research organisations- is that ARVAC has always combined an interest in practitioners and interest in researchers. It’s not pure researchers talking to other researchers - it’s researchers having to talk to the real world. I thought that was important and still think that’s important. That’s why I’m still along for the ride.


What have you come across recently that would be of interest to ARVAC members, researchers and practitioners?  


I’ve come across a couple of things. One is Local Trust’s own publication - Julian Dobson’s piece (New seeds beneath the snow?). I read his material and thought that it was well worth a wider audience, and I’ll tell you why. The first part of the book is a very good resume of how important and useful local leadership can be in these areas where it’s needed. But that’s not new - that sort of thing has been coming out every five or ten years. It was very nicely done, but it wasn’t new. What is new about it is that he then said “But this is not enough. If we’re going to do something about what’s needed for life and living in those areas, we actually need some decent public services, and the combination will give us something that’s important”. Now I don’t think anyone has said that loudly or clear enough before now, so I think that’s an important thing to know about. That encouraged me.


The other thing is actually a chapter in the book about hybrid organisations, which is written by David Billis. I have talked about three sectors: the voluntary, public and private sectors. What he has suggested is there is another area which is the private world, the world of family and friends, who also get involved in voluntary action. There is a very interesting territory of organisations which seem to be partly family and friends, and partly more organised and voluntary sector. These have been talked about for a long time but I don’t think anybody has tried to pin it down quite yet. 


This is seen as the boundary of the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector has a boundary with the personal world and it’s not difficult to spot that anywhere. The ways in which people behave in formal organisations are very much like a group of friends, rather than an organisation. But on the other hand, they have to be organised to a certain extent, so how do you draw the line? How do you navigate the line between those two? I think that’s a very interesting area which hasn’t been looked at as much as it might have been. 




What do you think are the challenges and opportunities facing research in the voluntary and community sector?   


This is a harder question because I must avoid having a rant. I talked about joining ARVAC in 1985-ish when there was hardly anyone doing anything about the voluntary sector. Since then there was quite a period of expansion of work on the voluntary sector – universities became interested, there was a journal or two published. It all looked as though it was booming and there was something important going on there. I think that period of boom and expansion has ended. Getting people really interested in the area again is quite a struggle and that is reflected in the fact if you want to get any money to do any research, even small-scale piece of research, it’s very difficult. So the first challenge is that the bubble has burst.


The second problem is when we started in that period of growth there was a lot of really interesting ideas about theories of the voluntary sector – how it worked and how people behaved in those organisations.That was important. It seems to me that that period of building theories or interrogating theories has largely come to an end. If there is any money around for that research, no one wants to do that – they’re all involved in evaluating a programme. I’m not saying you shouldn’t evaluate programmes at all, but it’s a very limited part of what you want. And again, the way that you evaluate a programme can be narrow or wide. You can actually draw wide conclusions from it or can just say it was “good”, “bad” or “indifferent”. That’s the concern I have about it and I’m not aware of people who are working on anything interesting on that theoretical, conceptual level. 


Why do you think that engagement in theory has declined?


There are a number of reasons for it. If you’re looking in terms of universities, I think that it’s the way that universities operate these days. You want quick gains, you want people to get things published. It’s all about volume. There are lots and lots of articles being published, which are all right, but people are under pressure to publish them and then move on. Whereas what you need for theory is people who are prepared to stick with it. When you’ve done one piece, move on and see where the next piece takes us rather than starting as if you’re starting from scratch. I think that’s one of the big problems. And that’s been exacerbated by the way in which central government has treated research on the voluntary sector (when they were doing it). The fact that they stopped doing it hasn’t been as big a setback as you might have thought, because I think what they have been encouraging has been largely the wrong kind of research. The whole area of voluntary action is incredibly complicated and complex and that needs teasing out, and there are very few people willing to engage with that.


This might be controversial but it seems to me that the people I know who are involved in ARVAC tend to be people like me who have got grey hair! I don’t think there’s that much engagement with the younger generation of people who are members. I’m not blaming them, because when we started it was new and interesting and you wanted to get to grips with it. Somehow it isn’t there at the moment. You publish that and get ARVAC to respond and say “But we’re doing it all the time!” I would be delighted!


Of all the pieces of research that you have been involved in, which one are you most proud of and why?  


The first one has to be the work I did for the book I wrote on rediscovering voluntary action. Although in part it was reflecting what I had done for years, I also did some more thinking and some more desk research to build that up, so it’s quite a major piece of work. I think what I produced was the thing I am proud of.


At the same time, years ago in 1999 I did a piece of work funded by the Lloyds TSB Foundation on small voluntary agencies. We looked specifically at the voluntary agencies which had no more than four full time, paid members of staff. Sometimes people call them the “micro agencies”. It seemed to me they were a very special or specific kind of organisation. Partway through the research we talked to a group of people from these organisations and said “This is what you have told us. This is how it looks” and somebody said “Yes, that’s fine. Very good. You’ve listened to us, you’ve told us what we said- what are you going to do about it?” I went away and thought, well they’re right.  It’s no good just saying we know how it is, we ought to think how it should be. So I ended up writing a handbook for those small agencies which we called “Juggling on a unicycle”, because somebody involved in running or leading a small organisation like that was juggling all sorts of pressures and they didn’t have a lot of resource. It’s a good title and I also think it’s a good piece of work. It never really caught on. I think a problem was actually getting it to the people who might want to read it, who are the people running those organisations who are not really well connected into other organisations. I don’t think it’s dated very much at all. People should get it out and read it. It’s designed to be very easy to read, because if you’re in that kind of organisation you don’t have the time to read anything at great length.


What’s the best advice you have been given in life?


This is impossible to answer. I think it’s broadly along the lines of “Do what you want to do that gives you some pleasure, rather than kill yourself out of some sense of duty or trying to make money”.  Pursuing your own interest and pleasure is the best way forward, and that’s what I have tried to do - not always successfully, but I’ve tried. I’ve given it a good go.