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?

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