New Philanthropy Capital has just published a guest blog by Richard Hawkes entitled “Embracing radical change in the charity sector” (19 August 2021). It leaves me unconvinced. In the interests of free debate within our sector, let me explain why.
Richard’s contention is that “The pandemic has offered the greatest opportunity we have ever had to radically change how we work, to put “customers” first – rather than desperately trying to sustain organisations that have hardly changed for 30 years – and to base decisions on data and evidence rather than feelings”. He paints a dismal picture of charities in general: there are fine exceptions, but there are far too many that are “providing the same kind of services, running the same kind of programmes, fundraising in the same kind of ways and with pretty much the same kind of structures [as 30 or more years’ ago] ” Ramping up the rhetoric, he urges us to “really radically change the whole sector”. We must embrace “shifting power, merging, closing, starting up, doing everything in a fundamentally different way”.
He strongly criticises the way that other sector leaders engaged with Government during the pandemic, demanding Government money to help charities survive rather than focusing on the needs of beneficiaries and the national interest.
Five Big Problems
The first problem with this is that, although he demands decisions based on data and evidence, there is very little data or evidence in this blog, which is mostly rhetorical assertion.
The second problem is that it contains a striking contradiction. Richard quotes with apparent approval the view of some outside the charity sector that the Government’s £750 million rescue package for charities affected by the pandemic was surprisingly, even amazingly generous. For NCVO to say it was welcome as a start was ungracious, he says. But if the outcome was surprisingly generous, how can it also be true that the sector’s engagement with the Government was “really poor” with totally inappropriate messaging? Perhaps all the messaging to Government, media and MPs was rather effective after all? And what about the extra packages of Government support found for the Arts (also charities) and youth charities and domestic violence charities – was their engagement all “very poor” too?
I declare an interest as a Trustee of the Directory of Social Change, which played a significant coordinating role in the sector’s response to the pandemic, though I personally was not involved and I write here in my individual capacity. Richard criticises the initial emphasis on survival as organisations. But, if your members and beneficiary organisations are facing sudden and drastic threats it is relevant to say so and, unfairly, he doesn’t acknowledge that, constantly evaluating what they were doing, the infrastructure coalition itself at a relatively early stage cautioned against that very emphasis, urging charities to sress the effects on their beneficiaries above all.
Richard suggests that a much better message to Government would have been: “The sector fully supports the government in responding to the epidemic and wants to play the biggest possible role in responding to the crisis”. Oh? That is not how the arts lobby got its generous package. Richard fails to analyse the attitude of the Govenment, preferring in a one-eyed way to place all the blame for alleged lack of good engagement on the charity side. Hands up all who think that the likes of Dominic Cummings, Richie Sunak, Oliver Dowden and Boris Johnson would be swayed by this alternative one nation messaging, rather than by anxiety about the widespread possible loss of charitable services and charities and consequent political and media grief? Richard even allows himself to characterise the possible response of sector leaders to the forthcoming Autumn financial statement, based on their past performance, as “a few tweets into the sector echo chamber”, which is unattractively dismissive given the enormous, multi-faceted and, after all, at least partly successful collective effort made by both generic and subject-based charity leaders.
The third major problem is that he doesn’t mention all the other aspects of charity leaders’ engagement with the Government during the pandemic. Major effort was put into feeding intelligence into Government about the predicament and needs of different kinds of beneficiaries, how sundry Government initiatives could reach and benefit them better, how draft Government guidance on many pandemic-related subjects could be improved, how volunteering in the NHS and vaccination programmes could be best facilitated, how voluntary and statutory agencies could be best co-ordinated through the Voluntary Sector Emergencies Partnership, and so on. Perhaps it is not surprising that Richard does not mention this very substantial effort, because he was not involved and not in a position to know much of which he speaks?
The fourth major problem is that he makes numerous untenable generalisations relating to charities in general or the whole sector. To be fair, he is not the only one who, when he talks in this way, really means charities that have significant budgets and staff rather than the majority who don’t, but even within that category his generalisations fail. In what sense should the very numerous charities for the advancement of religion be “fast-moving, data-driven and outcomes-focused”? In what sense should animal welfare charities, or environmental charities or research institutes, or civic trusts, be shifting power, to whom? Richard twice prays in aid the can-do attitudes of the private sector to adversity and change, but in the world of public service, change doesn’t and shouldn’t usually come in a sudden transformational rush. Many of the basics about good nursing, good listening, good caring, good charitable education, good research, good befriending, good worship, good conservation and good Arts and museums are unchanging and don’t become outmoded just because 30 years have passed. To take a random example among thousands, why should The Ramblers Association suddenly do everything differently, when over many decades they have successfully protected and opened up so many rights of way and helped walking to be so popular? I do not accept that the multitude of charities in all subject areas, adapting to changing circumstnces as they go, should be “doing everything in a fundamentally different way”.
Finally, the framing statement that the pandemic comprises the greatest opportunity we have ever had to embrace Trotsky’s permanent revolution in the charitable world (supposing that were desirable) is another simplistic generalisation. When it comes to the interests of beneficiaries, the pandemic has affected different charities in a very different ways. For many, it has been a distraction and inhibitor, the opposite of positive opportunity, as they have lost money, volunteers and staff for no good purpose, and had to settle for diminished impact for their beneficiaries as they struggle to retrieve lost ground.
The charity sector is hugely diverse. I regret that a notable charity leader should be making disparaging generalisations about charities and swiping at other charity leaders without too much care or fairness. I wholeheartedly agree that we want to encourage charities to raise their game through regular, self-critical, rigorous strategic evaluation and self-renewal, but I doubt whether this combative, unreliable rhetoric advances that aim.