Biting the hand that used to feed

The publication of yesterday’s report from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector has surfaced perennial but important fears that charities’ independence is at risk. When it comes to such threats, the main villain of the piece in previous years had been government funding charities too much, and the perception that this purchased acquiescence. Instead – and counter-intuitively for those of us who followed the critique of the New Labour years –  it is now the absence of funding and the self-policing behaviour this is said to induce in charities that is to blame.

Add in other concerns – such as the use of gagging clauses in Work Programme contracts or the inability to influence government decisions – and the sum total is that, according to The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, ‘Charities’ silence on government policy is tantamount to collusion’. The Panel describe the situation as ‘dangerous’. Strong stuff.

That charities value their independence is in no doubt (try searching a charity website). There is equally no doubt that charities are in financial difficulty. Falling donations, reductions in public funding and the increased need for services combine for a heady cocktail that has shaken even the most resilient of organisations. It would be foolhardy not to worry about their financial independence in the current climate. But some of the assertions made about charities supposed lack of independence are founded on myths.

The biggest myths surround the relationship between statutory funding of charities and their campaigning. Charities are rendered mute by their dependence on state contracts, the story goes. Amidst the daily grind of the news cycle it can be hard to remember that three quarters of charities don’t receive any money from a statutory body. Where charities are receiving state funding, it’s most likely to be in the form of a contract for the delivery of a service: our estimate is 82% of government money is now contract income.

Some of the biggest recipients of public sector contract income are, it turns out, some of the most vociferous campaigners standing up for the most marginalised. Charities such as Barnardos, Mind and Scope are using the evidence and learning they gather from providing services to drive policy and campaigns to change the structures and conditions that marginalise people (and drive their use of public services) in the first place. It’s simply not the case that charities are quiet on the big issues. One wonders if independence is just as threatened by sloppy, myth-ridden journalism.

It’s also a mistake to assume that the only influencing that works is of the ‘outsider’ public campaigning variety – placards at demos or harsh words in the media. Big charities exert much of their influence through a combination of wooing, cajoling, and occasionally offering to embarrass politicians. They necessarily do much of this behind the scenes, and often can’t even claim the credit when it pays off. But what matters most to them is that something has changed for the better for the people they support.

Many are biting the hands that feed, or increasingly, the hands that used to feed. In fact, they are biting so hard that they are generating criticisms of their legitimacy to campaign on issues ranging from regional planning to welfare changes – a sure-fire signal that they are asserting their independence with vigour.

At a time when the membership of some of our biggest charities vastly outnumbers that of the political parties combined, it is worth remembering that they have the mandate to stand up for the people and places they are advocates for.

But problems exist: frequently independence is challenged (mostly via self-censorship) when charities are dependent upon a single government funder with no viable alternative in place. Similar arguments  have been made about the role of wealthy philanthropists. Whether government funding or individual donations, notions of scale and income diversity are probably just as important as who or where the money comes from.

Balancing such pressures is a high wire act for trustees – and if it is not, it should be. Discussions about independence are probably best taken within individual organisations rather than at the abstract level of ‘the sector’. The debate highlights the ongoing need for effective governance, living the organisation’s values (as opposed to simply putting them on the wall), income diversification and building a broad supporter base. That said, the report is right to highlight that organisations such as NCVO and Acevo – who both gave evidence to the Panel – have a role in maintaining the sector’s independence. And we will carry on doing this – speaking about issues we are concerned about (such as the Work Programme), working with members to influence statutory bodies and, of course, using the Compact. The death of the Compact has been forecast more times than I care to remember, but all the evidence I’m seeing is that it is more relevant than ever.

Charities and the communities they work for are going through tough times at the moment. We are right to be watchful when it comes to the issue of independence, one of the defining characteristics of a civil society. This report makes a well-argued and thoughtful contribution to the debate. But the conclusion – that the voluntary sector’s independence is in real danger – is too pessimistic. The lesson of history – not to mention physics – is that for every action there is a reaction. The more the sector’s independence is threatened the more it will assert it.

Newton’s Cradle: by Andy Magee Licenced under Creative Commons licence.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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