This is the published text of a letter I wrote to the Irish Times just before Christmas, and was published on 31 December.  It responds to a particular editorial, but reflects some of the reading I have been doing about associative democracy and the functions of nonprofit organisations.

Sir, – In reading your editorial, I am struck that you pose a challenge to the community and voluntary sector which is not without precedent. Within a broader awareness of the need for change and innovation, many have asked themselves about the possibilities of consolidation, and indeed there have been mergers within the sector.

However mergers are not necessarily the easiest or most effective solution. The first question is, what is the role of the sector and how best can it support those who experience poverty and exclusion? Only then can we consider structures and institutions. In my view the community and voluntary sector has three core roles.

First, the sector responds to new and emerging challenges, innovating in ways that the State is unable to. However innovative service delivery requires quality mainstream public services, which are unfortunately being dismantled by austerity.

Second, NGOs advocate for better mainstream provision of services, as well as other decisions that lead towards a more just and equal society. It is important that decision-makers and their institutions are supportive of and responsive to advocacy. The Advocacy Initiative report, referred to in your comment, raises serious concerns regarding the capacity of the sector and the State to maximise the benefit from advocacy.

Finally, the sector fosters citizen empowerment, critically engaging people and communities in the decisions that will impact their lives and futures. For this work to be more effective we need participative and inclusive democracy, a democracy in which many participate and feel they can make a difference. Voting levels in recent referendums suggest our democracy is not what it should be.

Some within the community and voluntary sector do all three of these things – providing services, advocating for change, and empowering citizens — others do one or two. Different responses to complex challenges.

So yes, the sector has a responsibility to deeply reflect on its future, and that should include the question of consolidation.

However the reality remains that there are immediate urgent reasons — such as the 4,000 phone calls received by the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Dublin in the last week – as well as broader societal challenges, that need to be placed front and centre of any debate on the future of the sector. – Yours, etc,

Anna Visser