Why I Won’t Be Cooperating

First published in Huffington Post

I was pleased to hear recently that I am not alone in arguing that the charity sector needs to reclaim its independence.

According to Matt Scott of the National Coalition for Independent Action, it has ‘become predatory rather than collaborative’ as the big beasts of the sector compete for, and win, contracts. That’s life, you might say. And yet, a recent report suggests, we are generally more giving of ourselves than we think.

We are too often portrayed as a conflictual, competitive bunch. So says Charles Leadbeater, author of a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. From the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ to Adam Smith’s faith not in the ‘benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker’ but in ‘their regard to their own interest’. From Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene to ‘its intellectual twin’ of neoclassical laissez-faire economics. The ‘assumption of selfishness’ needs to be replaced with a new assumption, he says. ‘We are, first and foremost, reciprocators and cooperators’.

We are social and moral beings predisposed to act according to a commonly held sense of fairness. He cites social dilemma studies that repeatedly demonstrate this, and developmental psychologists who show that even infants not yet able to speak are capable of empathy. The history of civilisation is one of the spoils not of war and conquest, but of our capacity for cooperation and its ‘generative’ potential. Which all sounds very good but, says Leadbeater, in a society ‘unequal and riven by divides’ this apparently commonly-held facility to get on with each other is under threat.

‘For decades we have been used to addressing problems through the lens of selfishness and the market’, he claims. Last year’s riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester were in keeping with a ‘moral tone set by bankers who pocket massive bonuses, politicians who fiddle their expenses, and journalists who think nothing of hacking into others’ phones’. An ‘orgy of opportunistic, selfish materialism, is lurking just beneath the surface’ and ‘ready to erupt at any moment’. Which is simultaneously true and wide of the mark.

Blaming ‘selfish materialism’ for the unseemly behaviour of people in hoodies and pinstripes alike has been the Left’s all-purpose excuse for its own political bankruptcy since the days of Thatcher. Likewise its disgust with the Murdochs betrays a distaste for those that abandoned it all those years ago. But this wider sense of unease briefly but violently brought to the surface during the riots is really worth getting to grips with. Leadbeater is right to be disturbed not by a liking for expensive sportswear and electrical goods, but that the rioters ‘revelled in their disdain for the norms of civil society’. It did appear for a moment that society was indeed broken.

Bizarrely he thinks the famously pointless (and I’d presumed departed) Occupy movement might be able to put it back together again by ‘reasserting norms of decency, cooperation and reciprocity’. Alternatively he hopes that a ‘relatively small group of super-altruists’, by which he must mean those apparently predatory charities, will come to the rescue. But in the end he settles for people like him (and me, to be fair) – policy wonks – to make the ‘cooperative correction’ and promote ‘everyday civility’. For Leadbeater, we don’t cooperate at the drop of the methaphorical hat. We are merely ‘conditional cooperators’. The only trouble is that those conditions are, apparently, missing. The role of policy is to ‘restore those conditions’ and ‘build on intrinsic motivations towards cooperation’.

So, despite cooperation being ‘intrinsic’ and, therefore, built into our very being, things have got so very bad that the wonks must intervene. There are five conditions but I’ll leave you with just one. Number two says: ‘Reliance on formal rules can drive out the day-to-day give-and-take of people adjusting to one another and learning to get on’. In other words, its not just charities who need their independence, and the likes of Leadbeater (and me) should but out.

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?