Look around you: charity is changing

The Daily Telegraph is clearly up for a debate about the future role and direction of charities, having  published two thinkpieces in the last few days, from Rob Wilson the former MP for Reading and Minister for Civil Society, and William Shawcross, outgoing Chair of the Charity Commission.

These are potentially important contributions. As long-serving Minister and Chair of the regulator, they are arguably better informed than most and thus their words carry weight they might not if they were from others. Both are directly challenging the charity sector and its leadership, calling for change, for new ideas and new leadership. Are they right? Is our sector stale, our leadership constrained by groupthink?

Rob Wilson: charities have disappeared…

Mr Wilson’s piece is specifically in response to last week’s report on global inequality from Oxfam. Many will not have read the article: it was online only, and behind a paywall. One for the committed Telegraph subscriber, no doubt. They are more likely to have read the headline, one of the finest examples of clickbait in the genre. I think Oxfam is better able to respond to comments on its own report, as it has indeed done. It is Mr Wilson’s arguments regarding the wider sector that I thought worth commenting on.

Charities should stop lobbying for government handouts

This is probably the line that has evoked most response on social media. Wilson writes “It’s time to stop campaigning for more state hand-outs and instead become partners in a social reform programme.” There is some nuance to this – Wilson subsequently defended his position with an argument that charities should be able to campaign – a quote well worth framing. His argument is that charities just shouldn’t campaign for money from government.

I agree with Mr Wilson. Charities should become partners in a social reform programme with government. In fact, I think many are desperate to. If only government would open up. But it’s a nonsense to present this as an alternative to fighting for more resources to be spent on an issue. Fighting for more resources for an issue that is being ignored is why many voluntary organisations are set up – to think anything otherwise is just not realistic. And the framing – that charities are lobbying to line their own pockets – is divisive, particularly as some just interpret this as charities shouldn’t campaign. It’s hardly going to build trust with the very people who are needed to drive that reform. As an aside, its exactly this sort of misunderstanding, and lack of trust, that [necessitated] led to government signing the Compact with the voluntary sector. But that’s another blog.

Campaigning to spend more on the problem of homelessness

Grants are bad. Contracts are good.

In a post Kids Company world, rubbishing grants is like shooting fish in a barrel. Who wouldn’t want to pay only for results? Hence Mr Wilson argues “Government grants to all organisations, including those such as Oxfam with suspect agendas, need to dwindle further.” He further goes on to argue that “It is charities, social enterprises and co-operatives that should be delivering many of our local public services, not fuelled by grants but contracts…I don’t advocate simply handing over money without the right checks and balances, but contracts do change behaviour in an organisation, making it more professional, responsive and focused, so that delivery of outcomes for those in need is the important priority.”

Once again, I agree with Mr Wilson. I think there’s huge potential to involve communities more in the design and delivery of the services that they use. And yes, that includes charities, social enterprises and cooperatives delivering more local public services. In the midst of skirmishes over campaigning and funding models, it can be easy to forget the bigger picture of better services for people.

Are grants a bad way to achieve that vision? Do contracts lend discipline and focus to an organisation? I think once again, pitching these in opposition undermines the vision that Mr Wilson wishes to achieve. We need both.

Where service interventions and outcomes are well defined, contracts may offer best value for taxpayers and service users. Where innovation is the order of the day, where outcomes are harder to define or track, grants may be preferable. And where we want to encourage people to do things in their community – often on a voluntary basis – there are strong arguments for how grant funding can seed social action. I’ve set out the arguments here. But given that much of Mr Wilson’s article is about ideology, my plea to him and anyone else is to read this blog post by NESTA’s Geoff Mulgan. I fear Mr Wilson is falling prey to the sort of assumptions he thinks the sector is guilty of.

The Conservative Party’s relationship with the voluntary sector

There’s one final aspect of Mr Wilson’s piece that is worth reflecting upon, and that is the charity sector’s relationship with the Conservative Party. Mr Wilson states “Some Government Ministers already regard the charity sector with suspicion because it largely employs senior people with a Left-wing perspective on life and because of other unfair criticisms of the Government…It means there is regularly a tension between big charities and the Conservative Party.”

I’m neither a former minister nor a member of the Conservative Party (nor any party, come to that) so I’m at somewhat of a disadvantage here. Regardless of whether Mr Wilson is correct about the hiring practices of charities, perception matters. All of the big charities I have encountered work incredibly hard at working with all parties, but there is clearly more to do. Mr Wilson could help broker the sorts on conversations that lead to better mutual trust and understanding that, if he is right, need to take place. Initiatives such as Nick Mason’s Conservative Civil Society Network may also help.

Equally, we should not worry too much. It is right and proper that there should be tension between the government of the day and the voluntary sector. Many a former Labour minister will no doubt regale us with tales of anger at working with our sector. We are not here to make ministers feel comfortable, even if we share their vision of social reform.

Charities are obsessed with celebrities, apparently.

William Shawcross: charities have got their priorities wrong

William Shawcross is clearly someone who cares passionately about charities and voluntarism.

Mr Shawcross’ article covers similar ground. Largely aimed at large charities, it at times seems like it is knocking down a straw man. It is argued that charities need to face up to greater scrutiny, live their values, operate in a leaner fashion. It is hard to disagree with such an analysis – indeed, NCVO and others have argued such for a number of years now. Yet the tone and implication of the article is that we do not – and this is simply not the case. Yes, there is more to do, but the regulator is not immune from the need to change either. As an exercise, try reading the article and substituting the word ‘regulator’ for ‘charities’.

Even the most traditional charities are changing…

The golden thread

The key line from the article is a now familiar attack on large charities: “But I worry that too many large charities are too focused on chasing the next public service contract, or a bigger fundraising return, or a celebrity patron. Measuring their success simply in terms of growth. That is not good enough.” If there is a golden thread that connects the two articles, it is an attack on large charities and their leadership. Shawcross concludes “I hope we will see a new generation of leaders of the charitable sector – women and men with ideas, energy and fight, who make the world a better place. And can prove it.”

Like Mr Shawcross, I also worry about the future of our sector, but for different reasons. I worry that such comments undermine more than they provoke change; that they frame the discourse around charities too negatively. They are also wrong, outdated largely. They imply that those leaders are not already here, now.

They are.

My message to Mr Wilson and Mr Shawcross is look around you. Charity is changing. We are surrounded by a cohort of inspiring, indefatigable leaders who will take our organisations and lead our movements in the coming decades. Julie Bentley at GirlGuiding. Matt Hyde at The Scouts. Ruth Ibegbuna at Reclaim. Mike Adamson at the British Red Cross. Julian Corner at Llankelly Chase. Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa at The Foyer Federation. Deborah Alsina at Bowel Cancer UK. Matthew Bolton at London Citizens. Caroline Mason at EFF. Martin Houghton-Brown at St John Ambulance. Matthew Reed at the Children’s Society. Rosie Ferguson at Gingerbread.  Jon Quinn at RICA. Immy Kaur at Impact Hub Birmingham. Mark Atkinson at Scope. And Mark Goldring at Oxfam. I could go on.* There are so many more.

What do all these leaders share? A passion for social reform. A passion to grow outcomes, not incomes. By the way, I know for certain that they don’t all share the same political views . These two articles suggest that we are bereft of leaders, ideas, openness to challenge. We are not. The spirit of both articles is of challenge and change, and is strikes me that the people I work with most days welcome that. There is no groupthink here.

I recently celebrated working in the voluntary sector for 20 years. I’ve never felt more that our sector is open to change, and is changing. At NCVO, we look forward to being part of that change.



*On the basis that I wanted to go on, I started a longer list of inspiring charity leaders, which you can follow

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

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