Debra Allcock Tyler: We shouldn't be afraid of start-up charities

Concerns about losing out financially to new organisations is to make the wrong assumption about charitable endeavour, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

My parents popped in one afternoon for a cuppa. We were outside chatting when my mother spotted a couple of kites hovering over some prey. We were watching them when suddenly she said: "Shhh! Listen! Can you hear a duck quacking?"

Mystified, given that ducks are not typically found in our neighbourhood, we duly shushed and sure enough she was right - we could all hear a quacking duck.

"Maybe the kites are after the duck," she speculated. And then, forebodingly, she said: "Ducks attract rats, you know." This encouraged my father into a lengthy reminiscence about the 40 giant, disease-ridden marauding rats found living under a boat at his workplace. So now we became fearful of an invasion of rats carrying deadly diseases and started furiously speculating about which of our neighbours could be so thoughtless as to acquire ducks. I was mentally composing letters demanding expeditious disposal of said rat-attractors forthwith. And we still hadn't established who owned the bloody things.

As they were leaving, mum got her phone out of her bag and texted the next visitee to say they were on their way. "Oh dear," she said. "I missed several calls from Lisa." Then she started to giggle: "Oooops! I totally forgot! Lisa's ringtone is a quacking duck!"

You're probably wondering how the hell I link a story about phantom ducks to the voluntary sector. Well, that was a story about reacting to something that isn't actually a problem. So I come to the tediously recurring quacking that start-ups should be discouraged because there are too many charities and they add further competition to an already stretched funding environment, the idea being that the only effective way to make society better is to donate to or volunteer for an established charity.

Well, no. It's not. That assumes charitable endeavour is transactional in nature: there's a problem, so let's chuck some money at someone else to sort it out. I suspect lots of the challenges in our society are exacerbated because folk keep themselves remote. It's help at a distance. We send a cheque, but we don't send ourselves.

But there's a bigger picture. When someone starts a charity or community group, one of the first and most important things they do is to persuade folk who otherwise probably wouldn't get involved to show up, to care. They talk people into getting off their backsides and contribute to something. So the benefits charities bring to society are not simply about the bed or the bowl of soup. They're about human beings taking responsibility for the world.

When folk gather around a cause, the underlying principle is not money: it's about inspiring passionate engagement that encourages the same in others. That's how the world changes for the better. The value of hands and heart is beyond that of pounds and lasts longer, well beyond the money.

So we shouldn't be afraid of start-up charities: they should be supported, not discouraged. They help to create better citizens in a better society. New charities are no more a danger to our sector than phantom ducks are to my neighbourhood.

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

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