Editorial: The boundaries are inspected again

Should we revert to popular notions of charity, asks Stephen Cook - or try to change the public's perception of it?

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Sooner or later, chairs of the Charity Commission start talking about the blurring boundaries of charity.Geraldine Peacock mentioned it early on; Dame Suzi Leather spoke about it towards the end of her tenure; and now William Shawcross has focused on it in the first of a series of lectures about charity and the City of London.

The word charity does cover a bewildering range of organisations, from national museums and kitchen-table community groups to universities and huge healthcare organisations that get nearly all of their funding from government contracts. Some are hardly distinguishable from many not-for-dividend social enterprises that do not have charitable status.

Those who raise this question, including Shawcross and other members of the commission board, conclude that we need a national debate before the mismatch between popular notions of charity and the reality begins to damage public trust and confidence. But they rarely get much beyond saying that. From afar, this peak looks scaleable; but the climbers halt when they confront the first pitch.

A proper examination of the question, leading to recommendations for rationalisation and action, would be a complex undertaking, comparable to the Commission on the Future of the Voluntary Sector, which reported in 1996 and led to widespread changes. It would need buy-in from the government, but it's hard to discern any political appetite.

One vital subject would be names: Shawcross is right that many people associate charity with the relief of need through voluntary donation and not with, say, running a think tank or a housing association. Then would come regulation. But the fundamental subject would be money: which continents of the existing charity world would qualify for the tax advantages it currently enjoys?

The alternative not mentioned by Shawcross would be a concerted attempt to align public perception of modern charity with reality, rather than vice-versa, so that when subjects like £100,000 salaries come up, people accept that effective organisations can't be run by well-meaning volunteers on a shoestring.

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