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.


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