Dorset wide Voluntary and Community Sector Assembly – Dorset VCSA

Since mid 2021 we have been working with #HelpAndKindness  to facilitate the development of a new Assembly for the Voluntary and Community Sector for both the Dorset Council and BCP Council areas.

The local Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) is a huge varied sector, rich and diverse, volunteering and working within our communities.  Many people know others volunteering or working in it locally, but sometimes don’t feel connected to any wider picture, or county projects. The exception has been the pandemic, and other emergencies, when we came together in a common purpose with our NHS and Council colleagues.

These larger collective activities have been supported by organisations like CAN and #HelpAndKindness, and many others, to help link up local community activities with the county-wide and national responses.

This connection enabled better coordination, sharing of resources, raising of local concerns and the support of unprecedented social action and support across the county of Dorset. The results were amazing; lives saved, people kept safe and well, local needs met, and wonderful sense of community spirit.

CAN has been working over the past few years to develop our innovative community Networks to ensure we were in a great place to facilitate this work. This is just the start…

This model has impressed and inspired our colleagues in the Public Sector, and the NHS’ new model for providing health and wellbeing services is highly influenced by the success of the community-first mobilisation of COVID response and many other examples.

What new NHS model?

As of July 2022, the NHS in Dorset is being run as an Integrated Care System (ICS). This is founded on an Integrated Care Partnership which includes the NHS, Local Authorities, Fire and Rescue, Ambulance Service, Healthwatch, Patient Representation, AND (for the first time) the VCS. You can read all about the different elements of the ICS at

This new model of working is intended to balance central services with more community-connected services; linking better with Social Care in the Local Authorities, and building strong links and partnerships with the VCS in all its shapes and sizes.

The aim is to create greater capacity to support people to live their lives as fully as possible, in interdependent communities with joined-up support from all sectors available when it’s needed.

This is how Our Dorset describes this new approach:

“Everyone in Dorset deserves to live well. That’s why our NHS organisations, councils, public services and voluntary and community partners are working together as an integrated health and care system. We are joining up to tackle all the things that affect our health and wellbeing, make real change, and improve things for our communities.”

“Integrated care is about removing traditional divisions between services so people and communities get the support and care that they need.”

To make this work, the VCS needs to find ways to connect with this new Partnership framework.


So this is why the discussions began about an Assembly for the VCS in Dorset.

There needs to be some mechanism to link the wild, wonderful and varied VCS with the formal and structured needs of the ICS.

Patently not everyone in the VCS will feel connected to the ICS, or interested in it at all. Equally, it won’t be possible to get the thousands of local groups into a room to meet with other ICS partners.

But to make the ICS work, there needs to be a means to engage and connect, represent and champion the VCS at all levels; this includes strategic / system levels and at the community grass roots. It means being able to find people to sit in board meetings, contribute to service and programme design, influence and inspire service delivery, and engage with issues of resourcing and commissioning.

To quote from the NHS’ Integrated Care Systems: design framework document:

“We expect that by April 2022 Integrated Care Partnerships and the ICS NHS body will develop a formal agreement for engaging and embedding the VCSE sector in system level governance and decision-making arrangements, ideally by working through a VCSE alliance to reflect the diversity of the sector. These arrangements should build on the involvement of VCSE partners in relevant forums at place and neighbourhood level.”

Achieving this mechanism for connecting into the VCS has been the focus of a huge amount of work since mid 2021.

CAN and #HelpAndKindness facilitated and supported a series of meetings and lengthy process of discussion and collaboration between dozens of VCS representatives from across Dorset. This culminated in the birth of the Dorset Voluntary and Community Sector Assembly (Dorset VCSA) in July 2022.


It happened because people care. The people who participated from the VCS saw that this was important, both for the good of the VCS, and also for the good of our public sector health, care and wellbeing systems.

Dozens of meetings and conversations took place to work out how to link the creative passion and slightly chaotic nature of the VCS with the formal requirements of the ICS.

This is the result – the Dorset VCSA model:

The illustration above shows the model that we arrived at.

At the top is the stuff that the ICS may be wanting the VCS to contribute to. This includes strategy for the NHS, programme design, research and service delivery.

At the bottom is the wonderful creative VCS, some of which is linked together, some of which isn’t. Some is large, some is just a single, wonderful individual doing great things in their community.

In the middle is a service that provided by the Engagement Group (initially CAN and #HelpAndKindness) who weave between the ICS and the VCS to include and involve people, open links and lines of communication at all levels, and work in ways that flex to fit both the VCS and Public Sector Partners in the ICS.

The key to this model working is TRUST.

The VCS members identified a number of values that needed to be in place to ensure and assure trust in this new Assembly and those that support it. These are:

  • Open and Transparent
  • Inclusive, Fair, Equitable and Accountable
  • Accessible, Representative and Engaged
  • Respect and Humility
  • Honest

These values along with other governance qualities were written into the Terms Of Reference for the Dorset VCSA.

The work of holding the Engagement Group and the wider Assembly to account on these values has been assigned to a second part of the Assembly – the Governance Board.

The Governance Board is responsible for building and maintaining a relationship of Trust between the Dorset VCSA, the Engagement Group, and the VCS, and in turn with wider Sector partners.”

The Governance Board will oversee the work of the Engagement Group, and provide management of the Terms of Reference for the Dorset VCSA, management of the composition of the Engagement Group, and hold the Engagement Group accountable to the Values and Objectives of the Dorset VCSA.

Together these two elements of the VCSA (the Engagement Group and the Governance Board) will facilitate and enable the operation of the Assembly and support its Aims:

  • Dorset VCSA provides a respected and valued mechanism for the VCS to connect, work together and broaden the Dorset network.
  • The Dorset VCSA provides opportunity for high quality and equitable representation and promotion within the VCS and with public and private sector partners across the county.

The new Dorset VCSA was then able to co-sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the ICS to confirm the mutual commitment to partnership in the new ICS.

OK, that sounds reasonable, but what does that mean in practice?

It means that the VCS will have a seat at the table to work directly with public sector partners to jointly meet the needs of the residents of Dorset.

It will enable discussion and agreement on a better fairer commissioning model for the ICS.

The VCS will have a direct and equal voice and contribution to the design and delivery of services alongside the NHS and Local Authorities.

The VCS will be able to support, challenge, inspire and develop integrated services at all levels; from grass roots, street-by-street levels to county-wide approaches.

Everyone in the VCS is part of the Assembly and everyone’s voice counts.

It’s the job of the Governance Board, through the Engagement Group, to ensure that there is equity in representation and engagement; to see that all voices are heard, and that we challenge inequality and discrimination wherever we find it.

The VCS can choose how it wants to get involved and participate. Lack of time and resource shouldn’t disadvantage or limit a person’s involvement.

Loud voices should be balanced with quiet ones. The size of larger organisations shouldn’t lead to the marginalisation of those that are small.

The Dorset VCSA should enable the VCS in Dorset to be respected, supported and engaged as equal partners in the ICS.

But what does that mean in practice?

  • It means that the Assembly will facilitate VCS participation in meetings, consultations, engagement activities.
  • The Assembly will support VCS representatives to work with ICS partners to design and deliver services.
  • The Dorset VCSA will support experts by experience and training to contribute at all levels of the ICS, from front-line, street level to board level.
  • The VCSA will engage with the VCS and ICS to find ways of working that fit with the VCS; influencing commissioning models, looking at resourcing and governance, and co-designing solutions to meet community needs.
  • As a member of the VCS in Dorset you are part of the Assembly. You can contact the Engagement Group and connect in with the work that is being done.
  • The Engagement Group will also be making contact widely across the VCS, to share the news about the Assembly, and invite people to engage with the ideas and actions that are emerging.

Is it all set up and running?

Almost (this was written at the beginning of June 2023.)

We are making progress and have a Governance Board in place, made up of 7 individuals from across Dorset voluntary and community sector and they have been meeting monthly since April. We are making progress but there are still a couple more things to sort out to complete the VCSA’s set up.

  1. The Governance Board have identified some within their membership which we will be recruiting to over the summer – which we announced on 30th June.
  2. Formalising the structures and relationships between the Governance Board, Engagement Group and the sector as a whole.

Creating the Assembly network, engagement and communications systems -Currently #HelpAndKindness and CAN are using their best endeavours and their existing networks to communicate and engage with the VCS about this work. This will be developed into a full Dorset VCSA infrastructure which will build on the existing networks and systems that already exist across Dorset.

Thank you

So many people have contributed along this amazing journey. We are indebted to them all; the brilliant VCS representatives who have challenged, argued, inspired and ultimately agreed on this amazing way forward; incredible public sector partners who have helped with the interpretation and definition of needs, as well as encouraging and supporting the process of threshing out this amazing Assembly; and those that have provided expert input and ideas along the way from national organisations and networks.

We would like to say, on behalf of everyone, THANK YOU!

Comments, Questions & FAQs?

If you would like to raise any questions or make comment on this work then please contact us directly or take a look at our Frequently Asked Questions.

Emma Lee
Partnerships Manager, Community Action Network
01202 466130

Jon Sloper
CEO #HelpAndKindness
01305 59 59 58

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