1 in 10 – a statistical reminder of … well, not much really

The Guardian reports today that nearly one in ten charities don’t believe they will exist in five years’ time. I suppose this is the sort of thing UB40 had in mind when they wrote of ‘a statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care’.

These are the worst of times for many charities. In some cases, the circumstances that they find themselves in are life-threatening. The roll call is well-known: a tough environment for charitable giving, rising costs, and ever-increasing need for services. Even big brands like Oxfam are not immune.

But at the risk of sounding indifferent, I think we also need to take some perspective on such statistics (and in this case a somewhat alarmist headline). Don’t change the channel, though – this isn’t a blog about survey methodology.

The most obvious thing here is that nine in ten charities believe they will still be here in five years’ time. Such a survival rate is, in fact, perfectly normal.  Every year round about 5,000 charities are removed from the register. So over 5 years, we would expect to see 25,000 close. This is more than 1 in 10. Looking at the register as a whole, survey respondents are actually less pessimistic than the reality. (As an aside, I’m not a fan of the sleight of hand that converts the responses of individual charity employees to ‘1 in 10 charities think…’. ) There is, frankly, nothing ‘shocking’ about the Guardian’s statistics.

The more important point is that at least as many charities, often more, are added to the register each year. As new people with new ideas join the sector, as needs and social attitudes change, this seems right to me. We don’t want a voluntary sector preserved in aspic.

I do worry about the good organisations that shouldn’t be closing: those facing a cash crunch in the absence of sufficient reserves; those squeezed out by commissioning systems that favour only big outsourcing companies; those operating in difficult, unfashionable areas where charitable giving or social investment will never be alternative income streams.

But a knee-jerk response to some of these problems, wanting to preserve a relationship between the sector and the government that is already out of date, is unhelpful. We’re not going to return to a world where large-scale funding programmes are on tap. The worst way the sector could approach the 2015 election is with a long shopping list of public spending demands. Even if the economy is healing we must remember the looming shadow of demographic change. More than ever, no government can solve all our problems. The challenges of tomorrow will be best addressed through people taking power and responsibility in their own communities, getting involved, and volunteering. Voluntary organisations are already at the hub of this action, and we will be so more and more.

I would expect demand for our services to increase, as the Guardian and every other survey says. And I’d say we should use this as an opportunity: how the sector can be a solution to the problems faced by our society. We need a positive story about how voluntary organisations can be a motor for sustainable, inclusive economic growth. Positive stories about how we can reshape public services, intervene early, and give people the caring, personal support they need.

Taking the Guardian’s statistics at face value for a moment – I think we need to emphasise that we are the nine in ten. Things are tough for many of us, and if not for us then for our counterparts in other organisations. But nine out of ten of us will be here in the long term, making a difference to the lives of millions. That’s something to be proud of and to look forward to.

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

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