Dear Minister

The incoming Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, will presumably be met by copious official briefings over the coming weeks – from a who’s who guide, to the finer points of charity regulation. We will of course look to help. But in the meantime, here’s our quick guide to the voluntary sector.

1. Charities are like fish and chip shops

Most charities are local. They serve their local community and run on a shoestring. Others are larger and can serve wider communities. This diversity of provision is a strength of the voluntary sector and reflects the organic and innovative nature of civil society. Sometimes politicians have ideas about the need for greater consolidation in the sector. Resist this. Charities must make their own decisions. Besides, no one suggests that a city would be best served by merging all the local chippies into one.

2. What’s in a name?

Not only do charities come in different shapes and sizes, they are also hugely diverse in terms of the type of work they do. From your local Scout group to the British Museum; the village hall to Age UK: what unites them as ‘charities’ is that they must serve the public benefit.

3. We’re changing the world, in different ways

Psychologists have proven that donors like to give to individuals – it’s one reason why child sponsorship schemes are so popular. Interventions with individuals can be transformative: providing dedicated, bespoke support that they need. But sometimes what needs to change is the environment around them. Their home life, their peer group, their experience in the classroom. What is needed aren’t just interventions that help a single child beat the odds, but interventions that help change their odds – and those of others like them. Wider interventions or campaigns form a crucial part of what charities do and can be a highly cost effective way to achieve impact for large numbers of beneficiaries.

4. Charities have more supporters than One Direction

OK, so there’s not actually been any scientific research to prove this claim. But we do know that the National Trust’s membership alone (3.94m people) is ten times higher than that of all the major political parties combined. Around 55% of the British public give to charities and 29% formally volunteer each month. Moreover, the latest Charity Commission research shows that public trust in charities remains high.

All of which is to say, let’s work together. Charities have roots in their communities and often reach those whom the state finds it hardest to help – working together with government, we can help to address many of the biggest policy challenges of our times. See the Compact and our manifesto for some suggestions on how to do this.

5.Why charities spend so much time talking about money

Imagine the queue on your doorstep. Not of chuggers – but elderly people, cancer patients, abuse victims, military veterans. This is the day-to-day reality for many charities and those who work in them. Often they have the skills to help, but not the resources to help everyone who needs them. Most charities therefore spend a considerable, perhaps depressing, amount of time worrying about money.

As Minister for Civil Society, this will particularly find its way to your in-tray as concerns about diminishing government grants and how difficult it is to access public service contracts. No one is naïve about the government’s economic priorities – charities cannot be immune from cuts. But current commissioning and procurement practices are hugely inefficient – creating unnecessary barriers for charities as well as small businesses. Anything you can do to improve this picture will reap dividends in terms of improved public service outcomes.

6. It’s the economy, Minister

Charities create jobs, boost the economy and save the state money. Yet their economic contribution has been too frequently overlooked for want of better data.

Behind our soft, caring exterior – measured in terms of our social good and impact – is a fair amount of economic clout. This year, for the first time ONS has used NCVO’s comprehensive Almanac dataset to improve its coverage of the voluntary sector – leading to a £23.6bn upward revision of its GDP estimates. Meanwhile other ONS research has considered the value of volunteering – placing this at £24bn per annum.

Better recognition of the sector’s economic contribution would go a long way. The Social Value Act was supposed to ensure commissioners factored this in – recognising, for example, the added value of creating jobs for ex-offenders, homeless people and long-term unemployed. But too often an unsophisticated approach is taken – simply looking for the cheapest bid, rather than the best value for money.

7. Soup-er surprises

Any number of briefings cannot replace first-hand experience of visiting charities and meeting their staff, volunteers and beneficiaries. We’re delighted to see that our new Minister has this kind of first-hand experience already. But getting out and about always yields new surprises and ideas.

Only recently I discovered that homeless charities sometimes find themselves with cupboards full of a wide variety of well-intentioned soup cans. All donations are gratefully received of course, but if you’re cooking with one pan for 20, you at least need them all to be the same flavour! In any event, many modern charities would be more likely to have their clients in the kitchen, working in a team, preparing something more nourishing than soup and perhaps qualifying in the catering trade along the way.

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Charlotte Ravenscroft was NCVO’s head of policy and public services. Charlotte’s wrote about funding, public service delivery, and strengthening the evidence base for voluntary action. She has also worked at The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Education.

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