Charities and Culture Wars

The Chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, Baroness Tina Stowell, has told the Mail on Sunday that “Now would be the worst possible moment to jeopardise that [public] goodwill by getting drawn into the culture wars, on any side”. A little history might be helpful.

Many charitable purposes (as we now define them) have led charities to launch culture wars, in the sense of seeking to change the culture of society in ways that are contentious. Other charities have sought to defend society’s culture from what they see as malign influencies that threaten their objects.

For example, the great campaigns against slavery had to change the cultural assumption that it was normal and acceptable to trade and own black human beings as if they were chattels without any rights or dignity. The RSPCA, founded by William Wilberforce among others, was attacking a cultural assumption that it was morally acceptable to treat animals in any way anyone wanted, torture included. The RSPB was challenging a cultural assumption that it was acceptable to devastate bird populations in order to garner feathers for posh hats. The NSPCC, supported by Barnardos and The Children’s Society and others, had to surmount the entrenched cultural assumption that parents must have completely untrammelled rights to do whatever they wanted to their children, and to advocate for a culture of child rights.

And does it really need to be said that those trying to promote the human rights, education and health of women had to challenge restrictive cultural assumptions about the roles of men and women in society? Ditto gay people? Ditto people from religious faiths, or ethnic backgrounds, that traditionally suffered discrimination as inferior? Yes, the people rallying to these charitable causes were cultural warriors, if we must use that metaphor.

Meanwhile, on the defensive front of culture wars, the Mothers’ Union in its prime, with half a million members in the early twentieth century, interpreted its traditional understanding of its religious and moral purposes to involve root and branch lobbying and campaigning to save the country from the secularisaiton of education, the relaxation of divorce laws, and the ideas about birth control being promoted by Marie Stopes.

Indeed, it is strange to suggest that the enormous number of organisations for the advancement of religion should have no comment to make on cultural norms and assumptions. Is the great Catholic Social Teaching something that should have been suppressed? Are not religions bound to try to influence culture in the light of their beliefs, or set up alternative and better cultures of their own? Doesn’t the old hymn go “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to (a culture) war?”

Now think of all the charities trying to protect our environment. This is certainly not a purely practical or uncontentious matter. Deep seated cultural assumptions about behaviour and use of resources are engaged. If we must use the military metaphor, we are in a culture war to the death against norms of profligacy, waste, untrammelled greed and disregard for future generations.

Or listen to the voices of disabled people. Their charities are struggling against cultural norms which exclude them time and again. They will never gain effective rights and flourish fully without changing those norms.

And here’s the thing. In many of these culture wars, being neutral is not an option. To pretend to have no view on whether the planet is warming is in fact to take a side. To carry on as if the Black Lives Matter challenge is nothing to do with me is similarly to take a side. To have no view on whether women, or disabled people, or gay people, should have equal rights is to take a side. To educate the public about National Trust properties without mentioning that some of the money came from the slave trade is to collude with the side that wants to downplay the fact of slavery as a foundation of significant parts of our society’s wealth and heritage.

The Charity Commission tells us that charities should have values, should think about them carefully and live them out. But since they operate freely as part of society, not in some sealed off special world, in many cases their charitable objects, and their values, will carry them into taking sides, and into influencing, changing or defending the cultural norms and assumptions of society that have such a vast impact on their beneficiaries and the values they stand for.

The idea that charities should avoid culture wars reflects a pitiful stereotype that they are all uncontentious, bringing everyone together in a warm spirit of goodwill, regardless of differing opinions about what is right, good and acceptable. That stereotype is unhistorical, unrealistic, and very far removed from the level of understanding of our sector that any Board member of the Charity Commission should have.

The Next Chair of The Charity Commission

What sort of person does Parliament and the public deserve to have as the next Chair of the Charity Commission (the Chair), succeeding Baroness Tina Stowell who will stand down next February?

In addressing this question I am building on the excellent letter of 3 November from charity leaders co-ordinated by ACEVO – but adding a few points, drawing on my experience as a Charity Commission Board Member as well as within the charity sector, and, as an individual, allowing myself to be a bit more forthright:

The Appointments System

The current system for appointing the Chair is deeply flawed. The Charity Commission is accountable to Parliament and is a Non- Ministerial Public Body. Yet Ministers have excessive influence over the process and take the final decision. Last time, shockingly, the relevant Minister, Matt Hancock, stuck two fingers up to the unanimous view of the House of Commons Select Committee on the DCMS (The Select Committee) that Baroness Stowell should not be appointed, and appointed her anyway. As the ACEVO letter rightly says, the result of the system has been political appointments of successive Chairs with damagingly close associations with the governing political party of the day. NCVO made proposals for reforming the system in 2015 but these have not gained traction. We are therefore stuck with a flawed system. But that is no reason not to try to influence it for the good.

What is the Job?

For goodness’ sake, can the job and person spec be based rigorously on the tasks of the Charity Commission as set down by Parliament in the Charities Act? No more nonsense, pace William Shawcross, about the Commission’s being essentially a policeman! (The mandate clearly includes encouraging good practice in multiple dimensions.) No more mission creep, pace Baroness Stowell! (The Chair is not the Archbishop of Canterbury.) No more one-eyed focus on the trust and confidence objective alone when Parliament identified four others of equal importance! Stick to the Act – please.

Key Qualities of the next Chair

Here are four essential qualities of the next Chair, on top of the Nolan Principles  of Public Life and the generic competencies required by leaders of any public body:

  1. In depth knowledge and understanding of the charity sector (Essential). It is not enough to have been a Trustee of a couple of organisations. The Chair must have an informed understanding of the remit assigned to the Commission in the Charities Act – including all five of its objectives – and command respect from the Charity Commission staff and major stakeholders  (including the sector) in interpreting that remit in practice. The Chair must grasp the utterly varied contribution of different types of charities, in different subject areas, to the life of the nation, and honour its diversity. We cannot have another Chair with a limited stereotype of what the charity sector is and does. Can you imagine any other Regulator to which the powers that be appoint someone as Chair who knows little about the subject to be regulated?
  2. Independence of Political Partisanship (Essential). The credibility of successive Chairs of the Commission has been compromised by visible party political associations, undermining perceptions of independence and impartiality. Party political neutrality is particularly important for the Regulator of a sector which itself must by law avoid party political bias.
  3. Independent-minded commitment to the public interest (Essential). The Commission must be seen to be accountable to Parliament and to the public interest, not the interests of charities, nor the interests of the Government of the day. The Chair must demonstrate robust independence of mind and commitment to the public good as interpreted by Parliament and the courts. The Chair must be able to communicate effectively the nature of the public interest in a thriving charity sector, and distinguish this from gusts of popular opinion.
  4. Track Record of Governance of a similarly large, complex organisation in the public eye (Essential). The Chair should understand how such an organisation works, respect the distinctive expertise and role of the staff, offering a balance of support, affirmation and challenge, and should foster shared understanding and commitment amongst Board members and the Executive. Ego and solo performances should be subordinated to the Commission’s collective purpose, bringing out the strengths of other Board members and staff. The Chair must have sufficient experience of the media to be un-phased by media squalls and deal calmly, deftly and proportionately with matters of topical sensation and debate.

How can the current appointments system deliver?

There are four requirements, aimed at producing a Chair with those qualities, that could be met even in the current system:

  • There should be a person specification for this job that is a product of consultation with key stakeholders including the Select Committee and sector representatives. It should include all four essentials noted above.
  • The Public Appointments Panel should continue to include someone with extensive personal knowledge and experience of charities (as has, to be fair, been the case in recent Chair appointments)
  • The Panel and the Secretary of State should stick to the published person specification, especially the qualities marked as Essential. That might seem obvious, but last time we ended up with the recent Leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, even though the person spec had specified someone “demonstrably independent”! That candidate also had very sparse knowledge and experience of the charity sector even though that requirement was in the person spec, too.
  • Because the Commission is accountable to Parliament and is non-Ministerial, the appointment process should be carried out in the spirit of a collaborative venture with the Select Committee on behalf of Parliament. The Select Committee should have input into the person spec as well as interviewing the recommended candidate before the appointment. The Minister should be satisfied that the successful candidate has cross party support in the Select Committee. Never again should the Commission, and the sector it regulates, be damaged by a Chair who has been supported in Parliament only by the majority Party on the Select Committee (William Shawcross) or whose candidature was rejected by that Committee altogether (Baroness Stowell).

Trustees need a good Regulator

I am writing in Trustees Week. Life has been harder than it should have been for many Trustees as a result of poor, political Ministerial appointments that have neglected the essential characteristics outlined here. It doesn’t have to be that way. In a triumph of faith over experience, can we hope that all involved in this appointment will make the flawed appointment system work for the public interest?

The Purposes of the National Trust

Controversially, the Charity Commission has written to the National Trust asking how the Trustees consider a recent report about many stately homes’ links to slavery helps further the charity’s specific purpose to preserve places of beauty or historic interest. They expect “a detailed response”, according to a spokesperson responding to the editor of Civil Society News, Kirsty Weakley.

I think I can help, even though I have no connection with the National Trust apart from my wifes’ lifetime membership and a strong sense of gratitude for its existence.

Here are the relevant charitable purpose of the National Trust as described on the Charity Commission Register:

“The preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest….Also the preservation of furniture, pictures and chattels of any description having national and historic or artistic interest“. (My emphases).

Baroness Stowell, Chair of the Commission, was wrong to tell the Daily Telegraph that “The National Trust has a very sort of clear, simple purpose”. She also emphasized that it was important “not to lose sight of what its 5.6 million members expected” (on which I guess the Trust has much more comprehensive expertise than the Charity Commission). But The National Trust does not exist for its members, it exists for the benefit of the nation, including parts of the nation that are under-represented in its membership and current users. The Trustees have a high responsibility to work out what that means and how to reflect changing national concerns and make an offer to the nation that is as inclusive as possible. Yes, that does include a sensitivity to those who care deeply about the shadow that slavery casts over our history, not least many black people. Of course the National Trust cannot define “historic interest” so as to ignore historic interest in how much of our nation’s stately homes and other treasures were derived from the profits of the slave trade. The Charity Commission knows all this perfectly well.

So this purpose is far from “simple”. The Trustees have to navigate culture wars, work out how to be more inclusive in trying to benefit the whole nation, not just well-heeled elites, not just its members, not just art lovers, not just comfortable middle classes. They have to define and explain what is of historic interest, when different people are interested in different things for different reasons. They have to recognize and adapt to changing attitudes without unduly upsetting traditionalists. These are not matters for invigilation by the Charity Commission: they are the responsibilities of the trustees.

One wonders why the Charity Commission has destabilised The National Trust and forced it to expend time and energy in “explaining” what is so obvious from its charitable purposes, especially when it is struggling with painful retrenchments and big staff cuts caused by the pandemic. Is it because the Commission feels it has to show Oliver Dowden or the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph that they are responding to the concerns of that part of the public energised by a culture war against “wokeness”? Whatever the reason, the Commission is doing itself and the public no service by misrepresenting the purposes of the National Trust as “simple” and implying that reporting on the links to slavery may not be a legitimate aspect of “historical interest” to all those who believe that black lives matter.

Baroness Stowell’s AGM Speech: What went Wrong?

  1. The Charity Commission’s online 2020 AGM was a splendid opportunity for the Commission to reach out to an unusual number of attendees, but the Chair’s keynote speech garnered indignant reactions on social media and beyond. What went wrong?

Some good points

The speech contained a number of sound points which might have got lost in some of the reporting.

It is true that, as she emphasised, a lot of laudable generosity, volunteering spirit, courage and determination to do good for others has been manifest in the response to the Coronavirus and lockdown. She paid tribute to the work of charities as part of this. She thanked Trustees for all the hard work trying to maintain the viability of their charities. She knows that many charities are having a tough time, and said so.

She is right that charities have a higher degree of accountability than non-charitable organisations to the public since they benefit from the cachet and financial advantages of charitable status. It is also true that people need to believe the motives of charity leaders are truly what they say they are.

It must be right at least to look, as she proposes, at whether some potential charities are being unnecessarily put off by the current practice of registration. And it is good for the Chair to be saying that she wants people from more diverse backgrounds and world views to get involved in charities.

Unfortunately, all of this has been overshadowed by the egregious flaws of the speech, which should surely have been challenged and corrected by senior staff or other Board members of the Commission?

The Flaws

 Failure of Emotional Intelligence

In so far as Baroness Stowell was trying to influence an audience of charity representatives, she showed spectacular insensitivity. Her main lesson from the pandemic was that public support for charities cannot be taken for granted. COVID-19 has not changed the main challenge the sector faces, she says. Really? Charities have suddenly lost much of their income for entirely external reasons, and have had to make heart-breaking cuts and change their entire modus operandi. That is certainly “the main challenge” they are facing. They really do not need to be told they depend on public support. The desperate problems now afflicting them have nothing to do with letting down public expectations, but with an unforeseen catastrophe that has removed their income. To highlight this “lesson” in current circumstances is out of touch and a notable failure of emotional intelligence.

So is the description of Trustees as “The Charity Commission’s first line of defence”, ruining the intention to thank them for their efforts. Could one possibly think of a more insensitive way of describing Trustees who are giving their all, not for the Charity Commission, but for their charitable cause and beneficiaries, and the survival of the charities they love?

Disparaging CharitiesSecondly, Baroness Stowell indulges her familiar bad habit of tarring the charity sector as a whole with the same brush. Her peroration emphasises the “change that is required within charities themselves to ensure they retain, and in some cases regain, broad, diverse public support”. There may be a few exceptions here and there, but overall the picture she paints is that the entire sector has failed to live up to public expectations, is lacking in humility and accountability, is in danger of losing public support and must change. This saloon bar generalisation is simplistic, vague and unjust.  

Implicit is a very poor, even insulting view of our sector. We are arrogant. We don’t care about what the public expects and wants of us. We are frightened of accountability and openness. Most of the 168,000 organisations already on the register need a good kick up the backside if we are not to slide into further disrepute and the end of public support for charities. True, the Commission’s Chair is not supposed to be cheerleader for charities and must be independent of them. But this one is repeatedly disparaging the sector as a whole, notwithstanding her remit to promote public trust and confidence in charities.

Nor in other respects does she show understanding of the extraordinary variety of charities and charitable enthusiasms. It isn’t all about humility and kindness to other people and Captain Tom. The lockdown also showed the inestimable value of green spaces and countryside, walking and exercise, which so many charities have championed for so long. It highlighted women’s struggles against domestic violence, and many other gross inequalities in our society. Indeed, the speech broadly ignores charities’ contribution via empowerment, campaigning, advocacy and lobbying. The Chair of the Charity Commission should not be promoting a restricted view of what charities are and do.

One-eyed view of Public Expectations

As she has many times before, Baroness Stowell suggests that people will be more supportive of charities which “recognize a responsibility to uphold the special status charity (sic) holds in the public mind”; and that “success depends… on meeting public expectations of what charity (sic) means in the way in which charities go about their work”. But the Commission’s efforts to create a narrative of “the public’s” expectations of charities’ behaviour via its limited research programme have proved on close inspection to be unreliable and unconvincing:

What Baroness Stowell continues systematically to underestimate is that people usually support particular causes. The key driver is enthusiasm for the cause and the particular charity. They don’t put money in the tin or write their direct debits for humility, dignity, selflessness or any other “standard” mentioned by the Baroness, nor to support the special status of “charity”: they do it for children in need, their religion, their love of nature and the environment, solidarity with battered women, and so on, and for a charity they believe will pursue that cause wholeheartedly and for love. You would not know it from her speech, but charities’ principal responsibility is not to uphold the special status of charities but to their beneficiaries and their cause, and pursuing it for the public benefit – two words that are, as usual, entirely absent from this speech.

Muddling “charities” with “charity”

Baroness Stowell repeats the habit, now unfortunately entrenched in many Commission documents since her arrival as Chair, of equating charities with “charity”. The Commission’s mission is now worded as enabling “charity” to thrive, whereas Parliament has tasked them to enable charities to thrive. Their preference for undefined “charity” reflects a desire to spread their remit to embrace what they refer to as “the spirit of charity” or, in this speech, “charitable instincts”, and the whole world of giving and self-sacrifice in pursuit of social good. There are three big problems with this:

  • It is not what Parliament tasked them to do, nor do they have authority and legitimacy in this vast moral arena.
  • It is vague, reducing the clear, practical guidance that the sector needs to a none-too-compelling episode of Thought for the Day.
  • It is an invitation to mission creep.

For charity with a small “c” is that quality of love and generosity of spirit linked by St Paul with faith and hope. It is at work in all sectors of society, in our families and in all kinds of informal relationships with neighbours and friends, in many statutory services – just think of the loving courage and kindness of so many front line staff in the NHS and care homes – and in the multitude of voluntary organisations that are not charities. It has never been restricted to registered charities, and never should be.

Armed with this extraordinary redefinition of its role, the Commission’s Chair now poses as a custodian on behalf of the public of all the moral qualities associated with charity – those mentioned in this speech include kindness, selflessness, generosity, humility, dignity and decency.

Yet the Chair of the Charity Commission is not the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is not her job to promote charity with a small “c”.  


One day, Parliament will surely catch up with the problems manifest in Baroness Stowell’s speech, which are:

  • Failure of emotional intelligence and being out of touch with the sector
  • Simplistic disparagement of the charity sector as it is today
  • One-eyed, unreliable view of public expectations of charities
  • Mission creep.

The Charity Commission is accountable to Parliament. The Shadow Minister for Civil Society, Rachael Maskell MP, has already proposed a review of the Charity Commission, going back to basics. I hope the Commons Select Committee on DCMS and many other Parliamentarians of all parties will think along the same lines. Many Parliamentarians have a lot more personal experience of charities of different shapes and sizes than Baroness Stowell has ever had. The sooner they review the Commission from the perspective of the basics laid down clearly by Parliament itself, the better.

Charitable think-tanks: a man’s world?

Think tanks try to influence the climate of opinion and the direction of public policy. So anyone who cares about women’s rights, their distinctive challenges and future opportunities, will want to know that think tanks are equipped to understand these and take them thoroughly into account. Perhaps this is all the more important when they are charities, benefitting from tax breaks and other benefits granted by Parliament on behalf of the public – men and women alike.

A perusal of websites, which hardly qualifies as in depth research but is based on their own public presentation of who they think they are, suggests that too many prominent and influential charitable think tanks – including the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society – may be ill-equipped to identify and integrate women’s distinctive perspectives and requirements  in their work, and that the position at such distinguished charities as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation is better but not ideal.  A rough gender balance in the governance and operational arms of a charity doesn’t automatically bring sensitivity to women’s rights and perspectives, but makes it more likely and suggests commitment to equal opportunities.

Policy Exchange describes itself as a right of centre think tank, founded by Conservative politicians including Michael Gove and Frances Maude. Of its 15 Trustees, 6 are women – better than some, as we shall see, but a minority. Startlingly, however, of the 53 staff and Fellows pictured on the website, only 7 are women. Chair and Chief Executive are both men.

The IEA is dedicated to free market economics and promoting free market solutions. IEA’s Board as described on its website comprises 12 people, of whom just 2 are women. Its overlapping Advisory Council of 13 has 3 women. There is thus a lop-sided gender balance at governance and strategic level. The gender balance of staff is better but still tilted towards men. Of the staff profiled on the website, 10 out of 25 are women. So far as one can judge from the website, 3 out of 10 of the most senior staff are women, and 3 out of 8 are second tier Heads. Chair, Director General and Chief Operating Officer are men.

The Henry Jackson Society describes itself as “a think tank and policy-shaping force that fights for the principles and alliances which keep societies free.” Charity-watchers may recall that both William Shawcross and Gwythian Prins had associations with this Society before their terms as Charity Commission Board members. Of its six Trustees, only one (Gisela Stuart) is a woman. Its four most senior staff are all men. Of its total staff of 22 profiled on its website, just 6 are women.

So far, it’s predominantly a man’s world.

Now let’s look at a different breed of charitable think tank, The Resolution Foundation, established to research and propose policies to meet the needs of low to middle income people (of whom women form a huge component). The Chair, Chief Executive and Deputy Chief Executive are men. It is important that the gender balance among the remaining staff is even, and there are women among staff Directors and authors of Foundation publications, but only 2 out of 6 Trustees are women and only 2 out of 10 Associates. Why should it be so?

Applying the same treatment to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, (IFS), which needs no introduction, the significant good news is that half of its strategy-setting Council of 30 are women (some of them redoubtable characters, too), while nearly half (41) of the 85 staff profiled on the website are women. The not-so-good news is that not only are Chair and Chief Executive both men, but 3 out of 4 of the remaining senior staff team are men, and only 2 out of 9 Trustees (elected by the Council) are women. When so many fiscal issues are not gender neutral, this doesn’t seem ideal.

What about the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), widely identified as left of centre? It describes itself as “progressive”. Uniquely in our small sample, both Chair and Chief Executive are women! Only 4 out of 11 Trustees (including the Chair) are women. But 4 out of a Leadership Team of 6 are women, and exactly half of the staff profiled on the website are women, so this is not a man’s world like Policy Exchange,  the IEA,  and Henry Jackson Society.

There is also somewhat better gender news from The Kings Fund, a famous think tank promoting good health and health services. Of its 10 Trustees, a minority 4 are women. Chair and Chief Executive are both men, but the senior staff team of 6 comprises 3 men and 3 women, and of the profiled staff, a majority of 62 out of 98 are women.

Finally, although the Joseph Rowntree Foundation prefers to call itself a social change organisation, I hope it won’t mind being included as a think tank for the purposes of this blog. A majority of Trustees are women (7 out of 11). The three most senior staff Directors are women, the three Deputy Directors are men. Of the 25 key staff profiled on the website, 15 are women. So, yes we can!

It bears emphasising that this check on gender balance is crude. It doesn’t automatically correlate with commitment to equal opportunities, to understanding of patriarchy, or how gender affects so many areas of policy and experience. But it gives an indication and I maintain it matters. It is also a legitimate part of a charity’s accountability to the public to explain and defend the gender balance of its governance and staff. At least the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Kings Fund and IPPR, and to a lesser extent, the IFS and Resolution Foundation, are equipped with a significant presence of women’s lived experience and perspectives in their governance, agenda-setting and policy arms, though the latter two might have further to go.

But the IEA, Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society are governed and managed, mostly, by men. So don’t be too surprised if the rights, and distinctive struggles, challenges and dilemmas of half the population don’t get much of a look-in in the policy papers, educational materials and tweets pouring out of these charities. Don’t be too surprised, in short, if their vision of our future turns out to be, in the main, a man’s world, such as they embody in key respects themselves. Yet it doesn’t have to be like that, as other think tanks show. And charities are supposed to be for the public benefit – women and men alike.

Charitable think tanks: if you are reading this, whether or not you are mentioned above, please think carefully whether the gender balance in your governance, policy work and operations is reasonably even. If not, please either explain and justify it, or fix it. And Charity Commission: how about giving them a nudge?



The Inside Track or the Outside Track? The row that never dies.

Shortly before leaving his post as Director of the NCVO in 1984, Nicholas Hinton was booed, jeered and spat at. The reason was that his conversations with politicians and civil servants had convinced him that the Government of Mrs Thatcher was undoubtedly going to abolish the Greater London Council (GLC) and the best strategy for those concerned for voluntary action across London was to try to shape the post-GLC landscape in its favour.

  1. He shared this view with radical representatives of the grass-roots movements nurtured by the GLC, who wanted all-out resistance. To them, this was a betrayal, fracturing the solidarity of the resistance. The rationale of the informed insider confronted the raw emotions of representatives of marginalised groups demanding recognition and rights. It was a shocking moment in the history of insider/outsider tensions when the Director of NCVO left a meeting of voluntary organisations wiping spittle from his coat.
  2. Recognise anything at all familiar in this story? Yes, it’s an old, recurring row about whether voluntary organisations seeking change should pursue the inside or outside track (or both).

Criteria for the insider/outsider choice

  1. Most of us can agree that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for achieving change. The voluntary sector is an ecosystem whose different elements make different contributions, but in the end need each other. Without public and political pressure, the insiders may be ineffectual. Without the insiders’ knowledge and contacts, the outsiders may not get good intelligence about decision-making or know how best to exploit the pressure they have created.
  2. A charity seeking policy change must therefore analyse regularly whether energies should be invested more in cultivating the insider track with people nearer the levers of power, or by contrast in public challenge, protest, media pressure and the encouragement of people power. (I am focusing in this piece on charities trying to influence central government, but the principles apply equally to other civil society organisations and to other levels of Government.)
  3. Sometimes, the same organisation encompasses both insider and outsider tactics, hoping to achieve a symbiosis between campaigning and insider lobbying activities, so in those cases the calculation is about the balance between them at any one time.
  4. The outcomes of such an analysis, and resulting strategy choices, will rightly differ from one charity to the next. It will depend on three key variables, which we shall consider in turn:
  • The theory of change adopted by that charity (and periodic analysis of whether it remains valid)
  • The external circumstances, in particular the willingness and ability of your contacts on the insider track to engage seriously and, if so, make any significant difference
  • The culture, distinctive role and skills of the charity.

Theory of Change

  1. Put simply, the theory of change is your assessment of what sort of activity is most likely to bring about the change you want to see. Is the best pathway to change a rational discussion based on evidence with those close to power? If so, well-argued policy papers fertilised by political opportunism and media interest may be the most promising contribution my particular charity can make. If, however, you’re interested in change which in your charity’s opinion can only be effected by a shift in cultural and power relationships in society, well-argued papers submitted to civil servants will not do the job. And even if your hoped-for change is less transformational, the insider track will be ineffectual if the politicians and civil servants have decided that your cause is low priority. Your theory of change will need to adapt accordingly.
  2. By the same token, another charity may have adopted a settled model of protest and mobilisation, as of outsiders demanding admittance to a closed society, only to find that gaps are appearing and those in conventional institutions show a serious interest in policy change and collaboration. That can be a culture shock, even identity crisis, for voluntary organisations, as I think Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace found when Mrs Thatcher suddenly announced her epiphany on the subject of climate change. Theories of change may have to alter.

External Circumstances and Opportunities

  1. A similar major change can happen when a new Government of a different party wins an Election. Years in the wilderness can abruptly be replaced by an apparent welcome to the feast – or vice versa.
  2. A new Minister from the same governing party can also make all the difference: for environmentalists, Chris Patten instead of Nicholas Ridley as Secretary of State for the Environment, or for prison reformers, a Michael Howard instead of a Douglas Hurd as Home Secretary. The same civil servant would, following such a change, walk into the room with a completely different attitude and brief.
  3. Similarly, the umbrella bodies of the charity sector have known over many years the difference between a sympathetic and energetic Minister for Civil Society in a central Department and a less effective one in a more peripheral Department.
  4. The analysis and the calculations of insider/outsider tactics must therefore be open to change and debate as the balance of insider opportunity alters.

The culture, distinctive role and skills of the charity

  1. Different charities properly have quite different cultures and roles. Among those seeking policy change, some wish primarily to give voice to oppressed people, reflect their anger and put them in the driving seat of change through popular mobilisation. Others are think tanks with no such ambitions but with a desire to make an informed contribution as part of the policy-making process. The Kings Fund is not equipped to mobilise and empower the oppressed. Citizens UK cannot do the job of The King’s Fund. War on Want is a very different organisation from Save the Children, and both are different from the Overseas Development Institute; they contribute to change in a different way, and yet each is part of the ecosystem of charitable intervention in overseas development.
  2. Each charity must therefore have a clear sense of what its distinctive contribution is – perhaps the most important issue to be discussed in any strategic review. It will have a sense of what its beneficiaries want and expect, what its core strengths are, what difference it can make better than any other organisation, and, in a world of scarce resources, what other aspects it is going to leave to other charities with different strengths.
  3. That is why the distinctive culture and strengths of a charity are a really important factor, along with its theory of change and its analysis of external opportunities and barriers, in deciding the right balance of insider and outsider strategies.

Getting personal

  1. Of course, in a world of strong passions for a cause, such conflicting analyses can get personal, as Nicholas Hinton discovered. So the insiders may consider the campaigning types, who are reflecting the anger of a cause losing out in the current system, to be “shouty” rather than serious interlocutors, over-emotional rather than rational, posturing for a constituency rather than trying to effect real change, and indulging in “pure” rhetoric in preference to the arduous compromises necessary in the real world. They may deplore the “naivete” of those who cannot see beyond the requirements of their particular cause to put themselves in the shoes of decision-makers.
  2. Those reactions can be reinforced by patriarchy if the people cast as “shouty”, “emotive” or “naïve” are women. For the nose-tapping, adrenalin-pumping world of the effective insider track influencing power has mainly been, traditionally, a (white) man’s world – and although this is thankfully changing, the change is incomplete.
  3. On the other hand, the outsiders may suspect the insiders of being flattered and seduced by the insider track, which they perceive as exclusive and un-transparent. They may see the insiders as colluding with an unfair power structure, compromising their principles, or choosing to tinker with unjust policies rather than challenge them. They see the insiders’ relationships of trust with Government as a drag on open democratic accountability within the sector and on the robust public expression of the demands of those they are serving. They may see the insiders as being gulled by clever civil servants into thinking they are being listened to when in fact they are being largely ignored.


To hope that voluntary organisations will stop having rows about the insider and outsider tracks is like hoping that families will stop having rows about how late teenagers should stay out on Saturday nights. But to stop things descending to the spitting stage, let’s remember:

If possible, it’s better to analyse and respect the key variables rather than get personal:

  • What’s the theory of change and does it need adapting?
  • How favourable or otherwise are external circumstances to the insider track?
  • What are the distinctive role, culture and skills of my charity? and

It’s an eco-system. In the end, insiders and outsiders need each other. One without the other is often less effective than both working in concert.


What’s So Special about Charities?

  1. There is a lot of pressure on charities to be special. The Charity Commission is constantly saying it. And many of us in the sector also say it: charities should be valued because they are, and contribute something, distinct from other sectors of society. But what is so special, bearing in mind that lots of wonderful voluntary organisations are not charities?

Being special: three different dimensions

  1. It is essential to distinguish between three different issues, which are too often muddled. One question is: what makes charities distinct as a category – distinct from other voluntary organisations as well as from other sectors? A second question is what makes independent voluntary organisations (including but not limited to charities) distinct from other organisations? A third question is what makes an individual charity or other voluntary organisation distinct from all the others? Let’s take them in turn.

What makes charities, as a category, distinct?

  1. The following attributes, taken together and in combination, make charities a special category.
  • Charities must be pursuing objects that Parliament has decided are charitable, and they must be registered/officially recognised as a charity.
  • They must be for the public benefit, as defined in case law and in Charity Commission guidance
  • In return for the status and privileges of charities, they must comply with charity law and regulatory requirements
  • They must be independent
  • They must be voluntary, existing because citizens have identified a cause and want to do something about it themselves.
  • They are therefore run (almost always) by volunteer trustees and typically rely at least in part on voluntary donations
  1. Note that being independent, voluntary, governed by volunteers and raising money from the public – and whatever characteristics flow from them – are shared with non-charitable voluntary organisations.

What makes charities distinct from other voluntary organisations?

  1. The features that make charities distinct from other civil society organisations are that they must have a charitable purpose, be registered/officially recognised as charities, be for the public benefit, and must abide by charity law and regulations.
  2. These distinct features should be observable in charities’ mind-set and disciplines, because they are about higher standards of accountability to the wider public (not just their own donors and supporters) than those required for many non-charitable voluntary organisations. Each charity benefits from a special bargain between charities and the wider society: in return for giving their time, energy and money for love of a charitable cause that benefits the public (not a private or narrowly sectional interest), and submitting to regulation in the public interest, charities are given a special status and financial privileges. Therefore, they are partly accountable – through the Charity Commission and more generally – to a wider public, with a strong focus on understanding and demonstrating public benefit. I regret the relative neglect of public benefit in the Charity Commission’s current strategy and rhetoric because it lies at the heart of that special bargain.
  3. By contrast, although standards of behaviour, ethics and human resource practice are extremely important for charities as for other sectors, they are not in my view what makes charities distinct. When it comes to an organisation’s standards in relation to staff and volunteer safety, and safeguarding against abuse, bullying and harassment, it is in my opinion mistaken to expect charities generally to aim for a different or higher standard than all other organisations in any sector that value human rights and equal respect for every person.
  4. The Charity Commission has suggested that charities should exhibit distinctively better behaviour than other sectors, but their efforts to define this special spirit of charity as altruism, selflessness and compassion have failed, partly because these are not satisfactory descriptions of many charitable endeavours such as the protection of the environment, education, sports and the arts, and partly because they apply to many non-charitable organisations in the voluntary and public sectors (not to mention family and neighbourly life) and hence cannot be distinctive.

What makes independent, voluntary organisations (including but not limited to  charities) distinct from the rest?

  1. Shared enthusiasm and love for a cause (reflecting underlying values and beliefs such as belief in God, commitment to liberty and/or equality, love of nature and the countryside, affection for animals, belief in education and so forth) is the actual reason for existence of every voluntary organisation (charitable and non-charitable alike) . Volunteer commitment and voluntary giving are also usually the means of survival. So without that sustaining enthusiasm, most voluntary organisations will eventually die. That is different from commercial or public sector organisations. It is a distinctive aspect of participation in a voluntary organisation (not just charities), and should permeate its culture.
  2. Voluntary organisations (not just charities) are also special because they are nurseries of active citizenship, democratic participation, care for others or for Creation, giving and volunteering, amplification of the voice of those too easily unheard, over and above what would be generated if they did not exist.
  3. Moreover, they are free to focus on their particular cause and give it priority over all other interests. That is a limitation, but also a distinctive strength: for with that trademark single-mindedness, without fear or favour, can come particular expertise as well undiluted determination to win greater understanding and recognition of a particular need, and give voice to the voiceless.
  4. None of these precious hallmarks of independent voluntary organisations is distinctive to registered charities alone.

What makes an individual charity or other voluntary organisation distinct from others?

  1. The cause? Not usually: the most common charitable objects – the relief and prevention of poverty, the advancement of religion or education, the relief of sickness, the protection of the environment and heritage, and so on – and even subsectors within them, still comprise hundreds or thousands of charities and do not connote individual distinctiveness.
  2. How about organisational values? Not usually. I think of the official values of ActionAid, with which I was associated for many years: Mutual Respect, Equity and Justice, Integrity, Solidarity with People Living in Poverty and Exclusion, Courage of Conviction, Independence, and Humility. These values were arrived at after countless hours of passionate debate, and mean a lot to every ActionAider, but in themselves they could be, and are, adopted by many other organisations. The same is true of the value statements of most charities of all shapes and sizes.
  3. So if it’s not usually the cause, the ethics and behaviour, or the organisational values of one voluntary organisation that make it distinct from others, what is it? Two things.
  4. Firstly, every voluntary organisation has its own unique story of how it has embodied and promoted a shared enthusiasm, whether secular or religious. History is a huge part of this story: the original motivation, the coming together of people who wanted to change or protect something, the founders, the early struggles, the symbolic moments, the great leaders, the feedback from users and admirers, the iconic quotations, the innovations and battle honours. It is difficult for those who have not worked in a charity or other voluntary body to understand how much its history and tradition often means to those who are part of it. But this is not “history” in the narrow sense of annals of the past; it is a living story, fertilised by enduring enthusiasm, beliefs and values, lending inspiration to tackling the challenges of today and tomorrow.
  5. Secondly, every voluntary organisation, especially those enjoying charitable privileges, needs to be making a distinctive contribution. For me, the most important question in the strategic review of any charity is: “What is it that we can do that no other organisation can do (either at all, or equally well, or in the same way) in our time and place?” If a charity cannot answer this question, it needs either a rethink or to be wound up or merged with a charity that does have such an answer.
  6. To my mind, therefore, what makes each charity special, in the sense of distinct from other charities is – or should be – its unique living story and its distinct contribution to society.

Being Special in the Age of the Coronavirus

  1. I hope and believe that a large majority of charities will live on despite the desperate difficulties of the present. Some hae died and will die; many will be weakened, to the painful detriment of society, but will survive and fight another day. That will indeed be because they are special – but in three different ways.
  • they are special because they are registered charities combining all the attributes listed in paragraph 3, strengthened (and differentiated from other voluntary organisations) by charities’ special bargain with the wider public (para 5-8 above)
  • they are special in the same way as non-charitable independent voluntary organisations, because they are animated by shared citizen enthusiasm for a cause with a relatively single-minded focus and expertise and they do it for love (paras 10-12)
  • they are special because each one has a unique story and a USP (paras 17-18), and the stronger the story and USP, the better in general will be the chances of recovery.
  1. So yes, charities are special all right – but please can we stop talking of three different ways of being special as if they were the same?

Not a moment of glory for the Charity Commission

“Regulating in the Public Interest”: the Charity Commission’s latest research on public expectations is loaded in favour of its chosen narrative.

The Charity Commission has published the latest research commissioned from Populus into public expectations of charities. They’ve stopped calling it research into public trust in charities, possibly (am I being too cynical?) because the research shows that trust in charities has risen to 6.2 out of 10, beating the ordinary man or woman in the street, whose victory over charities was made much of by the Commission in the past.

Charities are trusted (within the acute limitations of such research) more than banks, private companies, social services, local councils, newspapers and, bumping along the bottom, MPs and Government Ministers. This doesn’t feature in the Commission’s headlines. They want to shape a different narrative about charities’ failure to live up to public expectations adequately. In various ways, the report is loaded in favour of that narrative.

Some key omissions and alterations

As well as analysing data from a recent sample of over 4000, the report seeks to draw together previous research findings from this series, so it’s instructive to note what’s been omitted. For example: that most of the public associate charities with about nine big household names; have very little knowledge of which other organisations are charities and which are not; and are unaware of entire large categories of charities. Why? These findings don’t fit the Commission’s narrative that public expectations of charities are the paramount consideration for charities and the regulator.

The claim that the public believes charities must aim at distinct and higher standards of behaviour than other sectors of society also hasn’t made the cut. I speculate that this is an implicit admission: the Commission’s previous research never did show this, and they should not have claimed it did – so this omission is positive.

There’s also an explicit and helpful acknowledgment this time that ‘public opinion is not monolithic’ and they show how opinions differ on some issues between four segments of society, from metropolitan Guardian readers in the top left to Sun readers in the bottom right.

Data about public expectations doesn’t match the Commission’s messaging

The main emphasis of the report is on the expectations that all segments of the public are found to hold in common. The runaway winner, with 79% support, is that a high proportion of charities’ money should go to those they are trying to help (also paraphrased in the report as charitable activity).

Way behind, at around 50%, ‘the second most important expectation across the map of the (sic) public opinion is that charities are making the impact they purport to.’ So, the public thinks that resources should be devoted to the cause and its beneficiaries and that it should make a real difference to them. All quite conventional, and nothing we don’t already know from previous evidence.

But here’s a strange thing: in the summary on the Commission’s website accompanying the report, and in the identical Introduction, these two winning expectations are omitted, in favour of three other expectations which have more to do with behaviour and the duty to uphold the reputation of charity generally – the Commission’s preferred narrative. Am I being cynical again?

The third most popular expectation, also at around 50 per cent, is that ‘the way our charity goes about fulfilling its charitable purpose is as important as whether it fulfils that purpose or not’. This is framed in contrast to how the same sample regarded businesses, which on this evidence the public expect to be determinedly and even ruthlessly focused on specific results and commercial criteria.

Caring for a sick child or cancer patient (a typical public image of a charity) is obviously different from selling hamburgers: how you do it is all mixed up with what you are trying to achieve. Crucially, however, the report does not explore whether the same expectation would apply to an NHS nurse, or a social worker, or your local community policeman, so we don’t know whether this expectation is specific to charities or to all those whom the public assumes are in a caring profession.

It seems wrong that the authors later paraphrase this third expectation, quoted above, as the public’s expectation “‘That the way they go about making that impact is consistent with the spirit of “charity”’. Where have we heard this phrase before? It’s a favourite but controversial expression of the Charity Commission leadership, but it wasn’t put in front of the research sample at all. It’s not what they voted for.

Leading questions

The fourth most common expectation is that all charities should feel a collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of charity (sic) more generally. Again, this finding is elevated in the Commission’s messaging – but there are two problems with it.

First, it was put to the sample in a loaded, falsely binary way. Respondents were invited to choose between the following:

  • Your only responsibility is to uphold the reputation of your own organisation [sounds selfish and inward-looking, doesn’t it?]


  • If you enjoy the benefits of that status, you have a collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of charity (sic) more generally [implies: surely you do?]


Worded like that, can there be any surprise at the outcome (20:63 in favour of the second)?

Second, there’s no exploration of the relative importance of this collective responsibility. What if the principal duties of the charity are to do your utmost for your beneficiaries, to which you should devote the major part of your energies and concentration, but you should also recognise an accountability to the wider public? One wonders what the result would have been if the sample had been invited to rank a few of the different duties of Trustees, including the collective responsibility among the rest? Perhaps it doesn’t serve the Commission’s preferred narrative to put that aspect of trusteeship in a relative perspective?

Asking a sample of people, a large majority of whom know virtually nothing about the Charity Commission or who never even heard of it, what the Commission’s role should be, has been a recurrent feature of these reports, which means it’s impossible to put too much weight on the results.

In this case, the report is vitiated by another loaded, leading question, with respondents asked to choose between these two propositions:

  • “The charity regulator should confine its role to making sure charities stick to the letter of the laws that govern charitable activity” [sounds narrow and pedantic]


  • “The charity regulator should try to make sure charities fulfil their wider responsibilities to society as well as sticking to the letter of the law” [sounds responsible and balanced, away with pedantry!].

It’s no surprise that the public vote for the latter even though none of the critics of the Commission’s current narrative actually are arguing the former point. It’s a false binary, designed to support a broad regulatory remit with a big focus on behaviour rather than legality.

Conclusion: not a moment of glory for the Commission or their research partner

Sadly yet again, all is not well when it comes to the Charity Commission’s relationship with data and evidence, and how the leadership uses data to buttress its wider strategy and public narrative. Previous research findings that might weaken the desired narrative have been omitted. The Introduction and summary cherry-pick the report accordingly. The relative weight of findings about trustees’ responsibilities is not properly assessed. Some questions put to respondents are leading and poorly framed. This is not a moment of glory for the Commission or their research partner, Populus.

Gentle Charities, Meek and Mild

Why is it so difficult to say anything sensible about “the charity sector” or “charities”?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, described charities’ “gentleness” as their hallmark contribution to the national effort against COVID-19. This reminded me of the Sunday School caricature of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”: there is some truth in it, but it is an unsatisfactory overall description of the figure who overturned the tables in the temple, sent the rich empty away and gave religious hypocrites the lash of his tongue. Similarly, it’s an unsatisfactory description of charities. But let’s not be too self-righteous about Rishi Sunak: he meant his comment as a compliment and he is very far from being the only person to express a limited, partial view of charities as if he were describing the whole. We all do it, some more often than others.

The problem is that the 168,000 charities registered by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, plus all the exempt charities and those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, are extraordinarily varied in size, type, and subject matter. Most generalisations fail to encompass this diversity.

One is indeed that charities should bring people together, bring out the best in everyone in an uncontentious manner, and spread kindness and good feeling towards our fellow human beings. According to a popular version of this view, contention and divisive advocacy should not be what true charities do. Politics, even with a small “p”, should be a completely separate category. Many charities do fit this stereotype, but many others do not, pursuing their charitable objectives – fully in accordance with Charity Commission guidance – by entering the realm of public debate and collective decision-making, awareness-raising and advocacy, as well as through practical service. Many charities are rightly none-too-gentle as they give voice to the oppressed and challenge injustices like modern slavery, patriarchy, racism, environmental destruction, or the other Evil Giants of our day.

This non-political, gentleness stereotype overlaps with the top-down, one-way stereotype of charitable activity, that it is essentially what better off people should do to, and for, the less well off (humans and other animals), driven by feelings of compassion, pity or guilt. Great good can come of this, but the problems are encapsulated in the well known response: “I don’t want your charity!” The recipients of this kind of charity may feel disempowered, even humiliated, if what should be theirs by right is available only through the happenstance of charity, and they are cast in the role of passive dependent rather than enjoying the dignity of rights and of contributing to the common life. That is why Oxfam, War on Want, Christian Aid and others fought against the narrow definition of charity in the second half of the twentieth century. They wanted charitable work to be about empowerment, social justice and solidarity rather than solely about kindness and pity for the disadvantaged. Many others want a clearer recognition that the benefits of charitable work are not all one way: the giver and volunteer also derive benefit and satisfaction, the beneficiaries have much to teach and contribute. So the top -down view is incomplete and flawed, too.

Another common simplification is to talk about the whole charity sector as if it were in social service (broadly, social care and health) rather than pursuing other charitable objectives such as the welfare of animals, conservation, environmental protection, education, advancing religion, the arts, sport and so on. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations changed its name from the National Council for Social Service to signal recognition of this much wider range of activities, but old habits of talking about the voluntary sector, and within that the charity sector, die hard. The central assumed paradigm of charitable activity, in much discourse within as well as beyond the sector, is that it is about social service among disadvantaged people. Yet that is another incomplete snapshot of our diverse sector.

Even the Charity Commission leadership, who should know more than anyone about the diversity of the sector, has taken to associating registered charities with the “spirit of charity” characterised as altruism, selflessness and compassion. This has two massive problems: firstly, that is not a satisfactory description of all sorts of charitable endeavour from sport to education to environmental protection; and secondly, that it encompasses a multitude of civil society and public sector organisations that are not in the charitable sector at all. Can anyone these days say that altruism, selflessness and compassion are distinctive hallmarks of charities rather than frontline NHS workers? And what about all those wonderful voluntary organisations that are not charities?

It has to be said that the Charity Commission are not the only ones to slide over the distinction between registered charities and other voluntary organisations: even sector think tanks, pundits and the sector journals can sometimes refer to civil society and charities as if they are interchangeable.

Yet another common simplification is to talk of charities as if they were all secular. For reasons that require another blog, if not a book, in their own right, in much of the discourse and thinking about charities today the massive contingent of organisations for the advancement of religion, which attract one pound for every five pounds donated to charities, are airbrushed out of the picture, as if they are really a quite separate subject (except in so far as they also do social service of some kind).

Thus, even organisations and individuals with a relatively high level of knowledge about the charity sector, nonetheless find it difficult to avoid one or other of these partial, inadequate descriptions. We can all find ourselves  “doing a Sunak” when we try to generalise about our diverse sector. That applies all the more to a large majority of the public, who, we learn from the Charity Commission’s research, associate the word “charities” with no more than about nine big name, national, secular charities. Ask a sample of 2000 whether they and their families and friends have received a service of any kind from a charity, and a majority says no. Yet show the same sample a short list of real life charities, and a very large majority says yes.  In other words,  the public does not know what is a charity and what is not, and hence has no idea of the diverse nature of the sector.

So is there anything sensible one can say about the charity sector as a whole, apart from the facts that it is extremely diverse and very widely misunderstood? Yes!

  • Charities must be pursuing objects that Parliament has decided are charitable, and they must be registered/officially recognised as a charity. They are therefore not the same as the much bigger category of civil society.
  • They must be for the public benefit, as defined in case law and in Charity Commission guidance
  • They must be independent
  • They must be voluntary, existing because citizens have indentified a cause and want to do something about it themselves.
  • They are therefore run (almost always) by volunteer trustees and typically rely at least in part on voluntary donations
  • In return for the status and privileges of charities, they must comply with charity law and regulatory requirements.

When we talk about the charity sector, let us use those as, in combination, the defining characteristics of all charities (not more nebulous, partial and unsatisfactory descriptors such as gentleness, compassion and altruism). Within that framework, let us honour the rich diversity of charities, secular and religious, big and small, staffed and unstaffed, contentious and uncontentious, gentle and rough, in all the categories of activity that Parliament has decided are charitable. Let us therefore try hard never to describe one part as if it were the whole.

Are Charitable Services Essential?

Are charitable services essential or just desirable? Shouldn’t essential services be made statutory and universal by Parliament? 

It’s an old chestnut. But the assumption that charitable services are nice to have, rather than essential, still shapes attitudes across party political lines and in the media. It is surely one of the reasons why the Treasury’s response to the impassioned pleas of charity representatives for a rescue package to save charitable services has been a disappointment to many of us. For charities’ efforts to show how essential their services are have hit the buffers of an entrenched assumption about the role of charities since the foundation of the welfare state.

Entrenched Assumptions about charitable services

This way of thinking about charities since the foundation of the welfare state – we can call it the conventional model – is that the work of charities generally is a boon to society, hence justifying the privileges of charitable status – but not essential in the same sense as universal state services. The defining characteristic of charities is that they are independent, not part of Government nor dependent on it, being born of inherently variable volunteer effort and charitable donations. Reflecting that character, the services they provide, (unless they are delivering state services as contractors), exist only in some places, often the more fortunate ones, as New Philanthropy Capital have recently demonstrated. This conventional model assumes that once Parliament deems a service to be essential, it will legislate for it as a comprehensive, state-sponsored service. Indeed, historically, one of the achievements of the charitable sector has been to pilot and demonstrate the efficacy of particular services, which Parliament has then decided should be for everyone, no longer dependent on the vagaries of charitable funding and volunteers.

And of course it is not a tenable proposition that every charity, even every charity with staff, is providing an essential service. For a start, many charities are trying to change the world rather than provide basic services – whether to advance human rights, to protect the environment, to eliminate poverty or pursue other charitable objects through influencing awareness and collective decision-making.  Nor can the services provided by a great number of charities be seen an essential in the same way as the NHS or state schools or the Police or the Armed Services. To take just one example, charities for the advancement of religion (a big chunk of our sector) may be seen as core to the identity, motivation and lives of their adherents – but not necessarily to many others who are not religious. Some people are animal lovers, or keen Ramblers, others aren’t. A large number of charities are like that: many people can do without them, even if they happen to be available where they live. That shapes much Government, political and public reaction when charities ask for emergency help.

But assumptions that charitable services are inessential and nice to have are no longer realistic

There are, however, two serious problems with this conventional model of thinking. One is that fiscal austerity has reinforced a trend that many services which perhaps most people do regard as essential, and should arguably be provided universally, are partly provided by charities instead, as hospital care and schooling used to be. Examples have featured strongly in discussion of the Treasury’s recent rescue package for charities. One is hospices: much end of life, palliative care is provided by charitable hospices, so that the NHS funds only a third or so of the cost and the rest is provided by charitable fundraising. Another is provision for victims of domestic abuse, now understood to be a very widespread phenomenon in every location but heavily dependent on voluntary provision in key dimensions. Another is advice services for citizens struggling to find their way around the system in a bewildering world of change. And there are food banks: eloquent witnesses that so-called universal and essential state social security is failing to enable citizens to put food on their tables.

In another dimension, many charities find themselves subsidising from charitable funds the services commissioned from them by the State – so without charitable support the services deemed essential by Parliament would either disappear or become even less effective than they are now. In all these ways, charities have increasingly been drawn into shoring up what are supposed to be essential state services. And new services that might deserve to be regarded as essential have increasingly not been recognised and “promoted” by Parliament to the status of universal provision, as should happen according to the conventional model.

And definitions of essential services are contested

A second problem is that the definition of “essential” or “vital” services is contested and difficult. That is why Parliament’s view has changed over time as society’s attitudes and understanding change. There is in reality a spectrum of desirability, not a clear boundary between “essential” and “nice to have”. So the conventional model is too rigid. Is the preventive and public health work, and accident prevention, carried out by many charities – and undoubtedly saving the Exchequer substantial sums in the long run – “essential”? Is the work done with refugees and asylum-seekers “essential”? What about community transport, on which so many vulnerable people depend for (for example) hospital visits? What about all the respite and support work with carers? Or with marginalised groups with intractable problems such as drug abuse, alcoholism, rough sleeping, children excluded from school? What of all the work with children and young people vulnerable to crime and abuse or with serious disabilities? Just because many aspects of these charitable services are not statutory, are we to say they are not essential to our society? What about the Samaritans, lending an ear to people who are contemplating suicide – just nice to have?

So official assumptions about charitable services no longer reflect reality

And herein lies a core problem with which charities are struggling as they plead for more Government support. The conventional model still exerts powerful influence in Westminster, Whitehall and the media, with its crude assumption that charitable services are nice to have but not essential. It is the more powerful because, as we have already noted in the case of many charitable services in our endlessly diverse sector, that is true.  It is also powerful because many politicians and others believe for various reasons that charitable endeavour should be nice to have rather than meeting essential requirements for which the state should provide. Yet the reality in many cases is different, because charities fund as well as deliver many services which are already, or arguably should be, state-funded services. In all their diversity, charitable services are spread right along the spectrum of essential/nice to have, with increasing numbers, thanks to austerity, clustered towards the indispensable end.

Big questions for the future

The most urgent requirement is for Ministers and Parliamentarians, and the media, to recognise that the conventional assumptions they would like to make about charitable services are often no longer valid. Please get real: charities are shoring up and providing essential services, and many others that are immensely important to the most vulnerable members of society. That’s why they must be supported by Government in an emergency.

And as we think about shaping the settlement and social contract of the nation post COVID-19 – and mindful of the shaming inequalities that have been on view –  we must address which services should be regarded as essential, not just nice to have, and how they are to be planned and funded as universal and reliable for all who need them. For such services, limping along in some places, but not others, with variable charitable support, is not a good enough response to the suffering and sacrifices that the people are now going though.