Understanding organisational tensions in voluntary action: National-Local relations in the Simon Community and the Cyrenians

Penn, Alison (2018). Understanding organisational tensions in voluntary action: National-Local relations in the Simon Community and the Cyrenians. In: Brighton Voluntary Sector Research Forum, 19 Jul 2018, Brighton.


This paper is based on doctoral research. It begins from the position that the general contextual changes relating to the growing space taken up by the state and the growing dominance of business modes of organisation (critical developments in the twentieth century) have had a crucial influence on the development of voluntary action.

From this, the paper considers the history of the recurrent and changing organisational outcomes of this development. A central theme within this has been the evolving relationship of national body to local group. This theme provides a mechanism or ‘lens’ with which to consider the question – how have voluntary bodies organised themselves to achieve their objectives.

Many organisational issues relating to membership, decision-making, communications, funding, will cluster around this theme. More specifically there are general questions relating to how an organisation originated (did the national body come first or second?); what were/are its aims and objectives (did these vary between national and local bodies and in what way?); what is the membership and how is it organised (does the national body own the local group or is it the other way round?); what is the power structure (unitary or decentralised? Federative or hierarchical?).

How these features are organised on a national-local basis is crucial to understanding the internal organisational dynamic, especially the degree of interdependence and the balance of power between national body and local group. This in turn points to the degree of autonomy between the respective parts and is central to the nature of the relationship. However this idea of autonomy has an external dimension as well and one which impinges on the nature of the national/local relationships, namely the context within which a voluntary organisation operates and more specifically how autonomous a voluntary organisation is vis a vis the state and business.

The general issues and questions outlined above provide a framework for unpicking the organisational history of voluntary action and this paper will use case-study material by way of illustration.

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