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?

Charity Begins At Home?

First published in Huffington Post

While out converging with Corporate Social Responsibility enthusiasts in trendy Smithfield, our flat screen TV was being 40½ inched through our front living room window. Suffice to say that the finer points of fundraising strategy – the topic of discussion between complimentary glasses of wine – were no longer foremost in my mind. I was instead wondering how the intruders had got below the radar of the curtain-twitchers across our usually uneventful suburban street. But more riling was the response of the authorities or the lack thereof. We were made victims not so much by the smash-and-grab opportunists but by the managerial local constabulary and their therapeutic friends at registered charity (and proposed beneficiary of prison labour) Victim Support. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, their combined efforts, while doing nothing to apprehend the culprits, only succeeded in placing us firmly in the box marked ‘victim’.

‘On being burgled’ wasn’t supposed to be the topic of this, my first, Huffington Post. Next month I will be speaking at Doing it for charity? at the Battle of Ideas in London. The title of the debate alludes to Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s 1990s satirical Radio 1 DJs Smashy and Nicey. They liked to do lots for ‘charidee’ but didn’t like to talk about it – the joke being, of course, that they could talk about little else. These characters came to mind while listening to Kim Van Niekirk, founder of and Kate Wolfenden of Childreach International, on that unexpectedly fateful evening.

Van Niekirk began by taking us back to a more naïve time, the 1980s, when millions put their hands in their pockets for the bloated babies of Ethiopia. Several Live-Aid and Comic Relief-esque efforts later, and with more swollen bellies to boot, we’re a much more cynical lot. Today’s ‘savvy donor’ takes much more persuading. Or at least they would do, I thought to myself, if fundraisers actuallytried to persuade us. Instead, they are more interested in nudging us, as Wolfenden enthused, into ‘changing habits and behaviours’ that might also ‘help us save lives around the world’. In an age where people are wise to the failures of charity appeals, and when fundraising has become increasingly professionalised, it is ‘all about you, the donor’ said Van Niekirk. But since when was charity about the donor, the ‘extension of what they want to be and what they want the world to be like’ or helping us to ‘become more rounded citizens’? This resorting by a charity sector that has evidently lost its way to the donor-flattering politics of identity is nothing to celebrate.

Whatever happened to the good cause or ‘charidee’ as we used to know it? Surely this should be the focus of fundraising efforts – convincing people that the cause, whatever it might be, is a good thing in itself and worth supporting? While today’s sector seems to have lost track of what charity is all about, it seems to want to turn the rest of us into self-regarding Smashys and Niceys. More worrying still is the petty-authoritarian streak. Presumably resigned to the fact that they can’t make much of a difference in the world anymore, potential donors are being asked not just to donate money but to see the ills of the world through the prism of their politically-incorrect lifestyles. Whether its eco-guilt tripping with Van Niekirk’s green light switches, or financial gimmicks like Wolfenden’s loyalty cards. There’s no attempt to engage us as thoughtful, compassionate types who might just be interested in helping our fellow human beings, without it having to be all about us.

Having said that, sometimes charity does begin at home. Our neighbours rallying around, with their kindly enquiries, shared anxieties and sugary mugs of tea, couldn’t have been more charitable.