Interview in the Birmingham Post

by Brian Cormack Carr on January 22, 2011 · 0 comments


Tom Fleming speaks to Birmingham Voluntary Service Council chief Brian Carr

Ten years ago, Brian Carr arrived in Birmingham as a 27-year-old charity fundraiser and volunteer, convinced of the power of community action to achieve great things for society.  Today, Brian’s views are reflected by the Prime Minister David Cameron, who is championing his controversial concept of the ‘Big Society’.

As the chief executive of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council (BVSC) since 2005, Brian has played an integral role in promoting the power of voluntary action and philanthropy as vital contributors to Birmingham’s many diverse communities.  Perhaps Mr Cameron could learn a lot from a conversation with Brian about how the Big Society themes could play out in real life and how realistic the Government’s vision of the “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power” from the state to individuals actually is.

Brian explains: “Volunteering is a powerful force, and it’s exciting to hear politicians of any stripe acknowledging that. But it’s not automatic that volunteers could or should pick up responsibility, with very limited resources, for services the state was previously delivering with significant resources.

“Although many people give up their time for free, they in turn need to be supported and there needs to be an investment in that. With support, volunteers can do amazing things. I have no doubt that volunteering can be a great complement to what is already in place, and of course many innovative public services were first developed by volunteers and remain charitable to this day – just look at Barnardos and Citizens Advice Bureau.”

He agrees with Mr Cameron that if the ‘Big Society’ is to thrive, it is in the hands of citizens at a grass roots level, which is where Brian started on his own path in the voluntary sector, after a career in an entirely different field.

After graduating from Aberdeen University, he began work in the commercial world of corporate human resources, training as a manager with Marks & Spencer. It was his focus on developing staff members’ potential, along with every spare minute spent volunteering to support disadvantaged children that influenced his drive to move into the charitable sector.

“Seeing people reach their potential is what thrills me more than anything else. I think we all have capabilities far beyond what our jobs and lives usually allow us to express. Everything I do is about supporting people to realise their aptitude. I’m passionate about volunteering, it is a great way for a person to spread their wings and develop new skills, whilst giving something back into society. This is something that I knew I wanted to explore further,” he said.

After three years with Marks & Spencer, Brian was ready to take a brave plunge into uncharted territory.

“I left the company without a definite next step lined up, but I knew that I’d learned what I needed to. If I didn’t get out the temptation to just plod on would be strong. I wanted to work in a more autonomous way and to satisfy my desire to give something back to the community by doing something that was more than just a day job. It was scary, but it felt right and thank goodness it paid off,” he says.

That next step came quickly in the form of a part-time post as fundraiser for a local Citizens Advice Bureau. He remains convinced that a major factor in landing the job was the amount of voluntary work he had done in his own time.

Brian went on to set up the CAB’s legal aid services, before being promoted to the position of managing director on his 25th birthday.

Two years on, and Brian spotted an advert for a job at BVSC managing the city’s Volunteer Centre and he was immediately attracted to Birmingham because of the strength of its voluntary sector.

The centre is the nucleus of Birmingham’s volunteer networks, and helps volunteers find appropriate opportunities to donate their time. It is the same kind of centre where Brian first found voluntary work himself.

“Managing the volunteer centre took me back to where I started out volunteering with grass roots community organisations.

“When I first got involved through a local volunteer centre, I was amazed by the range of things you could do. Most people don’t know about the huge range of opportunities out there, so I wanted to make people aware. Everyone has different needs, and volunteering can involve everyone at the level that’s right for them,” explains Brian.

A native of Scotland, he found Birmingham a particularly attractive option.

“I was drawn to work in Birmingham by the city’s rich history of voluntary action and the abundance of examples of local philanthropy, such as the Cadbury family.

“Birmingham has so much to offer and has a diverse range of organisations and activists working across all service areas and parts of the city. The history of the city’s voluntary sector is unparalleled.

“The voluntary sector is well respected by both the private and public sectors in Birmingham. It is a massive part of the fabric of the city, and something we should all be proud of,” he explains.

During his time as BVSC’s chief executive, Brian has seen many changes in the sector and in the organisation. Perhaps the biggest of those has been the growing role of the voluntary sector in delivering public services, and now, the challenges it faces in an uncertain economic landscape.

“Since I joined BVSC the organisation has gone through a lot of changes in shape, size and funding profile. We work closely with public sector agencies, and the funding they provide us is essential in enabling us to do what we do. But we’re a responsible and enterprising organisation, and fiercely protective of our independence.

“We’ve grown our trading income to 30 per cent over the last five years in readiness for the economic pressures we knew would come. In effect, we are now our single biggest funder. That means the investment made by public sector partners is greatly multiplied in terms of the service we’re able to provide.

“That’s important to us, because we serve the largest voluntary sector outside of London. By far the bulk of our members are the very small, grassroots groups – the unsung volunteers and charities that don’t always have a huge profile, but who are doing vitally important work in our communities,” he explained.

What hasn’t changed though, says Brian, is the need for people to recognise and celebrate the role that the voluntary sector can play – and the support that it needs.

The current climate of austerity measures following the Comprehensive Spending Review means that the voluntary sector is facing an unprecedented challenge. Brian is eager for Birmingham’s citizens to shout loudly about the work already happening in the city.

He says: “We have now got a complex territory to navigate. There is a huge potential for the sector and volunteers to make a difference in ways that they have not been able to do before.

“This is in part due to the Government calling on voluntary action to make positive social change, and the opportunities this may open up. But I have to sound a warning, which is that we can’t achieve a Big Society with a vastly reduced voluntary sector.

“Voluntary groups are already experiencing an unprecedented level of funding cuts, and many won’t survive. It’s critical that we all rally to ensure that essential services are not lost. It would be a tragedy if the city loses what has taken years to build up and that’s what will happen if we don’t see the voluntary sector as a valuable asset.”

Brian is hopeful that solutions can be found, as the level of dialogue between the voluntary sector and its partners in the public and private sectors is much stronger in Birmingham than in other local authority areas.

“I welcome the commitment that Birmingham City Council has made to the voluntary sector by agreeing to engage in detailed discussions to find ‘intelligent savings’, and by appointing Councillor Sue Anderson as a ‘third sector champion’ in its cabinet,” he says.

“Councillor Anderson has got the voluntary sector’s interests in her portfolio and this puts the city in a unique position.”

© The Birmingham Post, 2011

Thanks for visiting! You can find more of my writing in my Amazon bestselling self-help guides How To Find Your Vital Vocation and Real Food Revival Plan both of which are available worldwide in e-book and paperback formats. Find out more here.

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