Why the big society should prompt a clean-up in the charity sector

First published in Guardian

The charity sector has lost its way and seems to have given up on its founding notions. We are seeing a rather unseemly scramble for funding as charities seek to retain what they can of their state hand-outs while public services are cut. Or fundraisers, particularly those pesky chuggers, seemingly unacquainted with the causes for which they are apparently campaigning. Volunteers are expected to be as interested in their own employability as they are in helping other people. And the sector is apparently more interested in contracts and compacts than campaigns and causes.

I don’t think we should blame the cuts or the “big society”, as many in the sector do, for the problems charities face. The whole point of the big society – and the reason why I welcomed it at first – was that it proclaimed itself to be against an overbearing big state. We were told it was for the idea that people are able to do things for themselves, and to run their own lives without being “supported” all the time. But it seems that the charity sector doesn’t see the big society in quite the same way, and the inference that it would not play the starring role in the coalition’s big idea really rankled.

“We are the big society”, it screamed. But is this true? At the same time that the sector has been claiming to represent us – to be the 99% (to borrow a phrase) – it has also boasted of its special relationship with the state. There is little pretence from sector leaders that it has any real independence, or indeed that this should be a problem. This “dual role” as both campaigner and service provider is described as a positive boon, allowing it influence that it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also means that charities don’t stand for anything much anymore. The sector has no identity of its own, straddling both state and society. And so the promise of the big society, already held back by the prejudices of a parochial political culture, has become just another argument about funding, rooted in the charity sector’s historical sense of entitlement.

To the extent that charities have increasingly focused on providing services rather than campaigning, no matter how good a job they do they are no longer charities in any meaningful sense. The Shelters, NSPCCs and RSPCAs of the charity world bear little resemblance to their former selves. They struggle with their dual identity as very sizeable public servants, on the one hand, and rather compromised campaigners, on the other. Is it any wonder that public trust in charities is reportedly “second only in volatility to its trust in banks“? Nobody knows what they’re for any more. By shifting the focus of their work from tackling a social problem to managing their relationship with state bodies, they neglect what it is that gave them their reason for being in the first place.

My experience working with local government and the charity sector in one of the areas most affected by the August riots has been instructive. People have been coming forward, wanting to do something. The authorities have been going on about how uninterested and disengaged people are, and yet when they have come knocking on the door, are at a loss as to what to do with them. This has been interpreted by charity leaders as a problem created by the cuts – about not having the resources, and in particular the volunteer managers – to respond to this unexpected outpouring of community spirit. But I’m not so sure. I think it is their disjoint from the communities they claim to represent and serve that gets in the way of capturing that spirit.

The authorities – and I include the charity sector here – were taken aback that communities were rather more capable of building themselves than they’d imagined. That much-sought-after “sense of community” did what big society advocates and critics alike said it couldn’t – it emerged of its own accord. The clean-ups were organised overnight on Facebook and Twitter by impromptu “pop-up” community groups. Volunteers got their brooms out before the smoke – both metaphorical and real – had settled, and then went their separate ways. Some wondered whether we were finally seeing the big society in action, but not in a good way.

One way or another, the big society is doomed. The charity sector doesn’t have the resources to deliver it. We ordinary folk are not to be trusted with it. And, as some have noted, Cameron and his government have been talking a lot less about it anyway, as it has increasingly been seen as a byword for the cuts. This is a shame, not only because the big society preceded the cuts, but because its prospects should never have hinged on the cuts in the first place. It should have been a project for freeing up society, and creating a new culture of self-reliance, not a programme for government and its friends in the extended state sector to argue over. And yet, despite a sector seemingly intent on digging its own grave, we might try to breathe new life into the idea of charity. One more suited to today. And we might still resurrect some of the more appealing aspects of the big society, whatever we decide to call it. Maybe that way, rather than it being a clean-up for the charity sector, we can claim it for ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech I gave at this weekend’s Leeds Summat

Charities should accept their game is up

First published in Independent

According 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 riotsthat 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?

Why feel charitable towards charities?

First published in Spiked

The UK charity sector isn’t feeling very charitable at the moment. It is, after all, being asked to deliver the Big Society while itself being subject to Big Cuts.

In an open letter to the prime minister, Stephen Bubb, chief executive officer of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), warnsof an approaching ‘tidal wave of growing needs and rising cuts’. This new ‘programme for government’, this ‘renaissance for civil society’, he says (without any sense that these two things might be contradictory) is being starved of the funds it desperately needs. Stop ignoring us and give us the money we need for ‘supporting the poor and vulnerable’, demands Bubb. Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) echoes this plea: ‘We support the idea of the Big Society, but the government needs to take swift action now to ensure that voluntary organisations survive to deliver it.’

As a consequence of the £81 billion of cuts announced in last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, local authorities need to save around £6.5 billion this year, and the charity sector is going to be nearly £3 billion worse off over the next five years.

However, Patrick Butler from the Guardian says: ‘The cuts are not directed at charities as such, but at services which charities happen to provide.’ These typically include things like ‘supported housing, women’s refuges, family support’ etc. It is the ‘vulnerable beneficiaries’, he argues, who will suffer most as they lose ‘a few hundred pounds here, a few thousand there; a youth worker made redundant here, a day centre’s hours dramatically reduced there’. All of these things add up and will in many cases, it is claimed, have a quite devastating impact on the people who use these services and who receive support from the charities affected. According to the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action: ‘This will cause real damage to many communities, which is why we all have a duty to speak out to protect services for our most vulnerable citizens.’

You might have noticed by now that the word ‘vulnerable’ keeps coming up. Which is why we have a duty to be more sceptical about some of the claims made on behalf of those ‘vulnerable groups’ we are told will be hit the hardest, especially given the hardships charities anticipate for themselves. There is, it seems, a degree of competitive claims-making and vaulting victimhood, as each charity seeks to out-patronise the other, as they in turn are patronised by the state. Is it really the case that our streets will fill with homeless drug-users, or that there will be a ‘surge’ in domestic abuse, if certain charities lose their funding or close down, as has been claimed? Are some of them guilty of inflating problems that are less pressing than we might be led to believe, or of inventing catastrophes should their funding be withdrawn? To what extent are they providing a useful service for people in desperate need, rather than hiding behind the vulnerable status of their supposed beneficiaries?

A recent piece in the Guardian expresses shock and outrage that a charity helping men being abused by their partners should lose some of its funding. After all, the British Crime Survey says that one in six men experience domestic violence. Is that really true?

What this actually suggests to me is that perhaps some services do need cutting. And the charities that provide these services should be denied the state support – indeed, life support – that is keeping them going. While I am in no way against charities providing public services – they often do a better job in many instances than local authority departments – when charities belittle those they claim to be working for; when they effectively become an arm of the state, we do need to ask ourselves what we mean by ‘charity’. The programme of cuts that charities are rallying against at the moment is nothing to be celebrated in itself, but it does expose the extent to which charities have become dependent upon the state.

As Butler puts it, what we are witnessing is the ‘extended state, if you like, being decommissioned’. Over a third of voluntary sector organisations receive state funding. That comes to around £12 billion per year. It is little wonder, in the midst of the economic crisis and severe public-spending restraint, that charities now find themselves in a state of crisis. A total of 1,600 charities reportedly went out of business in the Lib-Con coalition’s first year. Others have merged. Not only have charities lost much of their funding from the state, but private donations from members of the public are also on the decline. This no doubt reflects the fact that we all have less to give, but it also points to the sector’s increasing lack of legitimacy. It seems to have lost its way and, as a consequence, has sought out the wealthy corporate donor and the tax break, rather than going to the trouble of making the case for ‘the cause’ – whatever that might be – to the general public.

Stephen Bubb argues that the sector can and should provide services, while retaining its ‘independent voice’. He gave a talk last year explaining how, prior to the Reformation, the ‘concept of an independent charity sector was unknown because the affairs of charity and state were intimately entwined’. It was the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that brought us the ‘campaigning charity’ against cruelty to animals, for instance, and only then, bizarrely, children. Of course, as he suggests, charities like Shelter and the NSPCC continue to provide services and to campaign, too.

But this ‘dual role’ is deeply problematic because it confuses what charities are for – undermining any claim to be a truly ‘independent voice’, while endorsing them as somehow representative. Bubb, like many in the sector, wants it both ways. But charities that work for the state and at the same time campaign against it are inevitably compromised. The charity sector does not represent us. Shelter, for all its good work, does not represent the homeless and the NSPCC is far from representing abused children, still less the adult population of whom it has a very dim view.

Indeed, one might ask, who does the charity sector represent other than itself? And, as a result, why should we stand up for it when the money runs out?