Debra Allcock Tyler: The Big Society Bank is a solution in search of a problem

There is little evidence that this sort of funding is needed, or even wanted, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Banks. Not very popular these days, are they? First they charge us exorbitant rates for going overdrawn for even a few minutes, then they force-feed us credit until we're choking on bad debt, and next they go bust and beg us to bail them out - despite the fact that the annual bonuses they award themselves could keep several small countries afloat.

So it seems counterintuitive that the government would adopt banking principles in order to fund the sector, doesn't it? The evidence against it is pretty overwhelming. In fact, charities appear to be some of the few institutions left in society not maxed out on debt. Ah yes, but evidence, it would seem, is a slippery substance in the hands of any government.

On the one hand, we in the sector are constantly exhorted by the state to provide evidence of our value to society, to the extent that we are often forced into making up metrics and measures - which usually go unread - to demonstrate 'evidence' of need, or to satisfy the terms of a grant or contract.

The harsh truth is that we are often wasting our time and money trying to provide what I call EBO - 'Evidence of the Bleedin' Obvious'. Isn't it bleedin' obvious that a physically challenged, lonely, elderly person gets value from a purely social visit by a volunteer for a wee chat over a cuppa and a companionable silence while watching Coronation Street? You'd think. Yet the local charity funding that volunteer has to 'prove' that visit had 'impact'.

And on the other hand, the government, somewhat hypocritically, consistently fails to provide evidence that the schemes being foisted on us are needed, wanted or will be effective.

The Big Society Bank is a perfect example. Essentially, it's a pot of capital - and not a big one at that - which, together with some money from dormant bank accounts, is going to lend money squeezed out of banks at commercial rates to our sector. So money that was irrelevant to your struggling unprofitable local charity is going to be just as irrelevant and inaccessible, but on a larger scale.

If ever there was a solution in search of a problem or a product in search of a market, the Big Society Bank has got to be it. And where is the evidence that this sort of funding is needed, or even wanted? Let's face it, larger charities already have access to capital markets. Small charities don't take loans. Why? Because they're not stupid! They know that funders or donors don't want their funds spent repaying interest on loans. And in fairness, if a social enterprise can't get a mainstream loan, you have to question its business acuity.

Is it only me who doesn't get it? Surely the simplest course would be to take the cash from dormant accounts and endow experienced, already existing community foundations with the capital so that they can make sustainable grants for small local charities that, in the end, are the ones that will deliver the big society? Now that's what I call EBO.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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