Charities are under assault. While many of us thought the Big Society was incoherent and full of empty rhetoric, in reality it ushered in one of the most sustained attacks on charities since legislation regulating their actions was first introduced in 1601.
First, the assault was verbal. The government’s notion of charity was small-scale, local and service oriented. Its ‘Big Society tsar’, Lord Wei, dismissed the big charities as ‘bureaucratic and unresponsive’ to citizens. Then came the cuts. By 2012/3, charities had experienced a fall in their income from government of £1.9 billion from its peak in 2009/10. The government’s own preferred smaller charities here were hardest hit, as local authorities could no longer contract them to provide essential services. Ironically, those charities operating in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath, the inspiration for the Big Society, shared the pain of these cutbacks.
Put on the defensive and struggling to respond to massive operational changes, the government then worked to shut them up. The Lobbying Act of 2014 severely curtailed the ability of charities to campaign on ‘political’ issues. Charities have always been advocates as well as providers for their clients, but the government sought to terminate this historical role. The onslaught has continued from many fronts. Changes in the regulations relating to tax relief has brought further scrutiny, and the Charity Commissioners have toughened their oversight of the sector as a whole.
In July of this year, the Daily Mail escalated the condemnation of charity when it reported that Olive Cooke, a 92-year old poppy-seller, had killed herself after becoming so distraught at the number of cold calls made by aggressive charitable fundraisers. The government saw a further opportunity to damage the sector. Over the summer, Sir Stuart Etherington, head of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, was appointed to lead a review into the regulation of charitable fundraising. It reported in September. The government has accepted all of its findings and legislation is now working its way through parliament to restrict and restrain charitable action.
Last week, I joined a roundtable of charity officials to discuss the future of charities amidst this more hostile environment. To some extent, the sector can look to comfort from history. This is because accusations of financial malpractice, high salaries and administration costs and aggressive fundraising techniques have perennially been leveled at charities, from the 19th century onwards. Despite this, however, we have maintained our faith in charities, aid fatigue has not set in and we have continued to be a nation of givers. Kids Company is not just an exception. It is light years away from the norm.
But the combination of press exposés with sustained government attack is something new and significant. What is most remarkable about the recent discussions about charity is how the language that used to be associated with other organisations is now attached to charity. Responding to charges of aggressive fundraising Etherington wrote of ‘the right to be left alone.’ That seems a fair point. But the efforts of chuggers in the street or cold callers in our homes are but nothing when compared to the invasion of our private lives by advertisers, marketers, ambulance-chasing lawyers and PPI parasites. How have we let long-standing debates about protection from selling come to be associated with charity and not commerce?
Likewise, Etherington wrote of the need ‘to maintain public trust in charities. But the truth is that it is consistently charities and the voluntary sector that the public trusts above so many other types of organisation. There is a crisis of trust in British public life. Levels of trust in politicians has been declining for years and levels of trust in banks is catastrophically low. How is it that the terms of public debate have been allowed to become so warped that it is charities and not the government that has to respond to charges of a lack of trust?
In the past, the charitable sector has been remarkably effective at articulating its own role, function, diversity, effectiveness and relationship to social welfare, public life, democracy and governance. From the Charity Organisation Society in the 1870s through to William Beveridge in 1948 and beyond, the purpose of voluntary action has been set out by charities and their champions.
Yet in the massive expansion of government funding of charities in the decade prior to 2010 a certainly complacency set in. In the rush to expand, charities did not reflect sufficiently well on their position in relation to state and society. Now that these funds are being withdrawn, the sector finds that it no longer has the language to articulate a defence of its purpose. Instead, the agenda is being set elsewhere – from advocates of social enterprise to the cynical utopians espousing a spurious ideology of philanthrocapitalism.
Charity needs to be able to sidestep the accusations thrown against it, set out what it does on its own terms and ensure that debates about privacy and trust are directed towards other institutions which have far greater problems in these regards. I am not an unreflecting champion of charity myself. In my work on international aid, I think there are some deeply problematic aspects of the extent and range of charitable activity in tackling global poverty. But if I can form an opinion on the proper role of charity in the past then charities themselves ought to be able to do it for the present.
Again, they could do well to look to history to draw out the remarkable consistencies that are apparent in their work. They have always had a place in the mixed economy of welfare. They can point to much good achieved through their campaigning as much as their service provision. Diversity has always been the base of their strength and adaptability. They have long been the trusted expert representative of their clients and the wider public, their professionalism and commitment holding in check the power of other unelected experts.
Etherington’s own organisation, the NCVO, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019. Perhaps the lead up to this significant date will provide an opportunity to reflect more widely on charity’s role and purpose. If charities do not, then they may continue to responds only to the definitions imposed by others. Undoubtedly there will be another big idea soon that seeks to define the sector. Any institution should surely try to dominate and construct the language within which it is debated and operates. But will the NCVO, the main organisation representing the voluntary sector, be able to ensure that charities contribute to their own definition? Or will they remain the pawns in another, more powerful, player’s frequently underhand game?