One of the attributes that separates charities and the voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations from other sectors is that they are driven primarily by their mission – by their cause. Indeed, many were founded by individuals, with a passion for a specific cause: wanting to address social, economic and environmental wrongs; wishing to create a fairer more just society and economy; or a sustainable environment. These founders were typically more concerned with outcomes than with spreadsheets, contracts or cosying up to any prevailing set of rules or authority.
Thankfully, there remain many charities and VCS organisations, which both continue this tradition, and do so without fear. Increasingly, however, this is not always the case. Charities are being more and more pressurised to conform to the prevailing political and economic ideology of a smaller state, market based solutions and austerity. Most charities, especially those whose mission is to promote the interests of communities and especially the most economically and socially disadvantaged communities, have to resist the seductive influence of public sector commissioners and procurers, politicians, the media and some donors who want an apolitical charity sector. This is ridiculous. Whilst of course, charities should not be partisan, their very existence and their charitable purpose and mission is often going to be ‘political’, with a small ‘p’.
How can charities and VCS organisations be expected to pass on the other side of the road when they see an injustice, hardship and actions that will damage society and, in particular, their beneficiaries? Most will rightly wish to intervene to offer support and take action, to both mitigate the impact of what they are seeing and also to address its underlying causes. And yes – this may mean that they have to challenge governments, local authorities, other public bodies, businesses and communities too. The fact is that this kind of challenge is both legitimate and a critical role for charities and the VCS.
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History demonstrates that charities and VCS organisations have successfully led and contributed to campaigns for: the rights of minorities, including people with disabilities; ending horrors such as child labour and slavery; protecting endangered species and landscapes; promoting the arts and culture; and so much more.
At a time of growing anxiety and uncertainty as a result of a planned further eight or more years of austerity and public expenditure cuts, Brexit, social division and increasing inequality, a housing crisis, the so called ‘welfare reforms’, climate change and so much more – I fail to see how charities and VCS organisations can ever feel comfortable or sleep easily at night by remaining silent. Nor do I understand why some would simply accept current social, environmental and economic conditions, or worse still see them simply as an opportunity to grow their size and turnover.
I recognise and respect that some charities and VCS organisations wish to focus on service delivery, with or without public sector financial support through grants or contracts. However, these organisations should consider most carefully how they can also promote the interests of their beneficiaries and service users beyond only offering services. Service provision creates data and information, including anecdotal cases studies, which can feed into wider campaigns. Not to use this information and such case studies with a view to influencing policy and practice could (and in my view, should) be seen as a fundamental dereliction of duty. Accordingly, it seems to me that charities that wish ‘only’ to deliver services and feel uncomfortable in campaigning should, at minimum, partner with campaigning bodies and share with them the evidence to mount campaigns. At the same time, other charities may feel more comfortable in contributing to campaigns through collective arrangements with each other.
Many charities and VCS organisations contract with the public sector to deliver public services and undertake other activities. This is quite appropriate, especially when they can add value through innovation, improving outcomes for beneficiaries, and are more able to reach communities and individuals, which the public sector would struggle to reach effectively.
However, charities and the VCS are probably not the right organisations to contract volume-based, heavily-specified services. Nor should they willingly be party to ideological programmes to reduce the role of the state and direct public service provision. This is not what charities were established to do, any more than they were created to provide ‘cover’ for the outsourcing of public services to businesses or their privatisation.
I wonder how long it will be deemed acceptable to grant charitable status to organisations that only wish to impersonate business sector outsourcers.
There are those who seem to expect charities and VCS organisations to step in and replace what were previously publicly provided and/or financed services. Of course, where there is need, charities will wish to meet it, but this should not prevent charities and VCS organisations from continuing to press for public money to support them in doing so, and perhaps, more significantly, from campaigning for the public sector to change policy.
Hard times require hard choices by charity and VCS trustees and senior executives. Many of their beneficiaries and those whom their organisations were set up to support and promote the interests of, are facing even starker and harder times. It is they, not the charities and VCS organisations, that ultimately matter.
Trustees have to take every action, understanding its impact for: their beneficiaries and service users; their organisation’s financial health (no charity can operate when financially unstainable); their organisation’s mission and values’, and their views and ambition for the wider interests of wider society. Above all, they must be active, responsible and outwardly focused citizens rather than solely inward looking trustees if the charity and VCS movement is going to make its greatest impact.
Charities will and should seek funding from across the breadth of foundations, corporates, the public and the public sector.
However, they should be wary of conditions on any such funding if this conflicts with their mission, and if it compromises their ability to both ‘act’ and ‘speak up’ for their beneficiaries, over and above the provision of services. In particular, if they can secure the right terms, charities could seek corporate funding for campaigning, not least because campaigning funding cannot be directly provided by the public sector, whilst service delivery finance can be.
Charities and the VCS must never become the conscience easement, or the depository for business/corporate social responsibility programmes. And equally, they should never be the ‘poodle’ of public sector procurement. Whilst different, the fact is that charities and the VCS are not some kind of mid-way point or bridge between the State and business. Trustees and sector executives have to be resolute in retaining their independent voice and protecting their organisation’s mission. And they must be ready to challenge business as much as the public sector when their actions are, fundamentally, immoral or not socially responsible.
The next few years are going to be challenging but they offer the opportunity and, I would contend, the necessity for charities and the VCS to go back to basics and the original purpose and press their cause fearlessly.