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?

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