Why charities run public services

I’ve just read a column by Dan Hodges in today’s Telegraph (‘Too many of our charities are nothing of the sort’).

Mr Hodges is concerned with what it means to be a charity. He dislikes the notion that charities can receive income from running public services and continue to be charities. ‘When people hear the word ‘charity”, he writes, ‘their thoughts turn to jam-making, and people dressed in silly costumes, carrying collection tins.’

Well, perhaps. Most people tend to have a more sophisticated view than this. They associate charity with its aims and achievements. I think that rather, when people think of charities, they think of organisations doing hard work in difficult circumstances; from small, local charities working on local or specialist issues, to international aid organisations.

They think of people trying to better the world, often to save lives. They think of caring organisations with the interests of their beneficiaries at heart. They may even think of organisations which have been encouraged for years to bring their expertise to helping improve public services.

There’s a reason charities run public services

There is a reason local authorities keep commissioning charities: it’s because they run high-quality, expert public services. They understand the needs of service users, and they invest money in their services and in looking after the people they care for, not in making profits. I tend to think this is a good thing. There are some very clear advantages of charities providing public services over private providers.

Primarily that they are not profit driven and therefore their only consideration is providing quality services to the people they are created to support (in fact, local authorities think it’s such a good idea they have busily been turning bits of themselves into charities for years. It’s because it works). Many charities began service delivery because they were unhappy with the quality of existing state provision. They knew they could do better.

It’s not clear why Mr Hodges thinks a charity that runs services for government, locally or nationally, shouldn’t be considered a charity, other than that he personally has a mental association between charities and jam, rather than charities and public services.

If he extended this line of thinking to the private sector, he’d soon find himself declaring many businesses that contract with the state to not really be businesses. (Where does this end? ‘This zoo gets money from the government – how can these pandas really call themselves pandas – they are clearly organs of the state…’).

It’s a political question

Fundamentally, Mr Hodges is shooting at a political question, and charities are getting caught in his crossfire. If you believe that the state should not contract out any service provision, that’s an understandable position. It’s not one we’d agree with at NCVO, and it’s well outside the mainstream political consensus of the last 20 years, but it’s philosophically coherent.

If you, as we do, believe there are benefits for service users and communities in bringing a range of providers into public services, it’s perverse then to suggest that charities shouldn’t be among them. You would leave outsourced provision exclusively to the private sector, excluding expert charities which can run high quality services.

If you believe that charities can bring benefits to public services and we should welcome their involvement, then you must accept that some of charities’ income will come in the form of contracts for delivering these services. That doesn’t stop them being charities any more than a company that has a contract from the state stops being a company.

What defines a charity is that it is legally bound to operate for public benefit and in the interests of its beneficiaries. I think it is a strength of charities that they come in different shapes and sizes, and I think that their involvement in public services enhances those services.

If you genuinely think charities are all about dressing-up and jam, you are so far removed from a meaningful understanding of public policy in the UK that you really oughtn’t to be writing about it for a national paper. If, of course, you’re just using it as a bit of rhetoric, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend it constitutes a meaningful or respectable argument.

If anyone wants to have a proper conversation about who provides public services, how they are commissioned and paid for, and how we ensure that they are run to high standards, we’re always happy to talk. (And do check out our regular blogs on the topic…)


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

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