News and Comment

Quality standards in the voluntary sector: rubber stamp or genuinely useful?

Wednesday 11 July 2012


Voluntary and community organisations are increasingly expected to reassure funders and commissioners about their approach to quality assurance. Quality standards are one way of doing this. But how do community and voluntary sector organisations use quality standards in their work, and are they viewed as a bureaucratic rubber stamp, just another funder requirement or a way to genuinely improve services?

Based on a wide survey of the sector, NCVO and OPM explored these questions in a recent scoping study commissioned by the Big Lottery Fund which has now been published, and is available at NCVO’s website (links to a PDF of the report). You can also read some of the views of people working in voluntary organisations and contribute your own thoughts here.

The current situation: A plethora of quality standards

Participants cited more than 130 different types of quality standards currently in use. But the research suggests that even the most popular quality standards, such as PQASSO and Investors in People appear to be used fairly marginally when compared with the wide range of other methods of improving quality in this sector, such as user satisfaction surveys, service reviews and complaints monitoring.

Reflecting on the breadth of continuous quality improvement systems and processes being used in the sector, the report points to the value in commissioners and funders taking these into consideration and asks if more widely recognised validated standards might be an option.

The benefits of using quality standards

While they can be costly to implement, voluntary organisations surveyed felt that working to a quality standard can benefit organisations by putting them in a stronger position to respond to tenders and provide a tool for organisational improvement and reflection.

The research suggests that while the initial driver or motivation for working towards a quality standard may be an external one (e.g. wanting to demonstrate quality to funders), it’s possible that once an organisation has gone through the experience of working to a standard, the unanticipated benefit of improving their service might be realised.


People working for voluntary organisations tended to think that public sector commissioners were the group who find quality standards most important, however the research points to a possible knowledge gap amongst some commissioners and funders about quality standards and the difference between them.

Some voluntary organisations also talked about the need to fulfil very similar requirements for a range of funders, regulators and commissioners. This can result in re-jigging evidence and moving pieces of paper around.

Responding to this issue, the report recommends supporting voluntary and community organisations to make informed choices about their approach to quality assurance and the use of quality standards (with suggestions for how NCVO can help with this).