Charities should accept their game is up

Dave Clements

Untitled 157 300x162 Charities should accept their game is upAccording to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, ‘independence – of purpose, voice and action – is what makes the voluntary sector special’. Sounds fair enough, but why the need for a panel? Is something amiss that makes such pronouncements necessary? Apparently so. Labour MP Lisa Nandy has accused her party’s former government of treating the voluntary sector as a ‘third arm of the state’. There is, no doubt, an element of seeking to co-opt charities to top-down agendas, but there has been little to suggest dastardly take-over plans. While congratulating itself on creating the self-evidently absurd Office of the Third Sector, the party’s policy review group admits to a ‘lack of overall narrative in Labour’s approach to the sector’.

The charity sector has hardly been dragged kicking and screaming down Whitehall. Like the political parties, charities are increasingly uncertain about their role in society. They also have in common, in the absence of a wider base of support, an obsession with wealthy donors. Far from resisting the advances of officialdom it has ‘taken on the role of the state and taken government funding’ into the bargain, says Nandy. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, seems to agree. He claims that some charities ‘tend to regard success as getting a place on a government committee’. It isn’t hard to imagine why this courtship makes sense from the perspective of a political class not usually associated with do-gooding. According to Nandy, ‘government loves charities because of that legitimacy’.

But, she cautions (and a little too late I fear), ‘charities must think carefully before they give it away’. The National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises reports a third of respondents describing themselves as service providers compared with one in five two years ago. Nearly a quarter regard this – not campaigning for social justice or the good cause – as their main function. The Big Society, while profoundly irritating for many in the sector, was the culmination of an ever more intimate relationship between state and the so-called civil-society sector. Consequently, far from making us more free, it has only further ingrained a long-standing relationship of dependence. This relationship is only exposed by the severity of the cuts to the public sector, particularly as local authorities close ostensibly ‘public’ services.

A recent report concludes that today’s ‘charities struggle to measure their impact’. But too often this is understood in the narrow managerial terms laid out by local authorities, of specifying the contribution of this or that intervention to the achievement of this or that outcome. Why should voluntary organisations reduce themselves to this, and account for themselves in this way? The adoption of this rather forced and technical language to try to articulate the contribution of charities to the public good, only confirms that the sector is morally as well as financially bankrupt. It lost its independence long ago. Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary Organisations, argued after the riots that we should be ‘giving them direction and showing them far better alternatives’. He was talking about the rioters but he might just as easily have been talking about the organisations he represents.

This stumbling around for something, anything, around which to articulate what charities are for suggests that the game is up. I wish they would just stand on their own two feet, but they don’t even know who or what they stand for anymore. If you ask me, the charity sector and political class are propping each other up like a couple of down-and-outs. And who’s going to help them?

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Dave Clements is a writer on social policy, co-editor of The Future of Community, and convenor of the Institute of Ideas’ Social Policy Forum. produced the Battle of Ideas session Doing it for charity? in association with the IOI Social Policy Forum, which took place on Saturday 29 October.

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  • Matthew Hardy

    To be fair, the Charity Commission revoked The Atlantic Bridge’s charitable status because it was a campaigning organisation.

  • Matthew Hardy

    The Charity Commission used to recommend against charities taking on government contracts, because they were considered to be insecure as a means of funding. This was covered in the (possibly out-dated) publication RS6, “Milestones: Managing key events in the life of a charity”. Seems it all changed with the Cross Cutting Review…

  • Freddie88

    The Atlantic Bridge got its charitable status in 2003 and only lost it after a complaint to the charity commission in 2010, which found that it had failed to achieve what it had originally claimed. Without that complaint no doubt The Atlantic Bridge would still be enjoying the substantial benefits of their charitable status. It seems unlikely that they were required to pay back any financial benefits their charitable status provided them.

  • Brian_Lamb

    Dave-’ absence of a wider base of support’ Charities have a larger supporter base through membership than political parties, are more successful at mobilising their supporters and without charity campaigning many state and other services would not exist. Sitting on Government committees can be one way of achieving your aims as can more radical campaigning. Your Richard Hawkes quote is out of context-the news report goes on to have him arguing that you can campaign and be radical even when you are providing services and that we should be measuring Impact not process on which he right but this does not support your argument that state and charities are just propping each other up.  

    Not sure what you know about charity governance either as campaigning has to be ancillary to service provision and often rests on the experience gained in doing so. 

    So exactly what are you arguing for-charities appeal to get all of their funds from the public for services-surely that would be a return to a Victorian model of philanthropy? Or should they just not bother? 

    The sector does need to have a good look at its recent past, it has been to compliant in accepting the terms of some of the contracting models thrown at it, but this article has no understanding of how different charities operate nor anything to contribute to solutions. And please the old war horse about charity Independence as if this is a new point!

    To have a battle of ideas you need to propose one as Moggg says this is string of quotes with no argument.

  • Christine Clarke

    Why are you generalising? There are individual and very different social enterprises that are a real boon to providing products and services that are needed whilst supporting charities to have a trading arm that supports them to continue doing good work.

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