Comment: Should beneficiaries include the staff?

An old ontological wrangle, traceable through Aristotle and Kant, has found its way into civil society: does the identity of charities lie in what they are or what they do?

Last year, Martin Brookes, chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital, declared that it's not good enough for charities just to be charities. Goodness, he said, is not an inherent quality, but an aggregate of actions. However elevated its purposes, a charity's performance is never above scrutiny. His detractors say value is complex. Charity is about inputs and processes as well as outputs and outcomes; about the person giving as well as the person receiving.

When Brookes outlined his manifesto in a public lecture, the respondent was Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter, who was in broad agreement. Sampson is a moderniser, one of a vanguard of charity chiefs who believe that activity and performance - what they do and how well they do it - are the essential bases on which their organisations justify their existence.

Still, the old quarrels rumble on for a reason, and nobody's more attuned to this than Sampson. Staff at Shelter have been striking about planned redundancies and changes to their terms and conditions: 25 jobs will go, 50 staff will have their positions downgraded, and all must sign new contracts extending their working week from 35 to 37.5 hours. Of course, it's all been confused by the trade union Unite and its splinter group, the T&G, ranting about fat-cat salaries and plush offices. But forget these guys. It's their job to complain.

The real question beneath all the froth is how we are to understand charities in the modern world. If we are to perceive them as businesses, Sampson's logic is unimpeachable. "We do not exist to provide jobs," he has said. And with 71 per cent of income going on wages, generous holiday allowances and pension contributions, cuts may well be necessary if the charity is to compete for statutory contracts.

But what if charities are supposed to be different? What if what they are - what they stand for, including the notion that everyone involved is both a beneficiary and a benefactor - is at least as important as what they do? What then?

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist:

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