It's time to tell the public

Writer and journalist Nick Seddon discusses the fall-out from his recent book Who Cares?, published by right-wing think tank Civitas, and argues that there should be a more open debate about how modern charities work.

When my book on the independence of charities was published earlier in the year, arguing that state funding is distorting the sector, I never imagined that it would provoke such strong reactions. This was because nothing I'd said, on the whole, was new. What Alison Benjamin, deputy editor of the Society section of The Guardian, generously called "the Seddon thesis" - namely that "politicians are beginning to define what charity is; it's what politicians will pay for" - was really nothing of the sort. Much of the book - as can be seen from the footnotes - is a patchwork of the research and commentaries of people far more expert and authoritative than me.

All the same, many of the big charities responded with a promptness that couldn't be improved upon, indignant that I could be so nasty as to question the relationship between the third sector and the state. In the national and sector press they rejected my claims. Most prominently, Lord Adebowale, chief executive of Turning Point, Clare Tickell, head of NCH, Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo's, and Bryan Dutton, the director general of Leonard Cheshire, all said something to the effect that "we do good work, and state funding enables us to do this good work - we cherish our independence and we're proud to be a charity". Many of their arguments were robust and persuasive, to be sure, but where in the book I've denied that they do good work is beyond me.

Negative reaction, positive debate

Curiously enough, however, these dismissive reactions have helped, both because they displayed how much the big charities wanted to close down debate and because, paradoxically, they had the effect of keeping the debate alive.

By far my favourite attack came from Acevo. "Civitas fantasists tilting at windmills," ran the caption on a letter from Nick Aldridge, head of policy and communications at the chief executives body, published in Third Sector. Dismissing my suggestion about the reclassification of charities, he said that organisations taking massive grants could find themselves pitched, from year to year, between categories, losing and gaining charitable status. True, but by focusing on the detail - of course the categorisation was crude and would require adjustments - he avoided the bigger issue of the identity of charities, how they choose to situate themselves in civil society and how they relate to the state.

It's a good question, though: imaginary windmills or real giants? The results of the Charity Commission's survey, announced at the end of February, were telling. Not only, to take a couple of examples, are the vast majority of charities that provide statutory services failing to achieve full cost recovery, but many also feel under pressure to conform to their funders' wishes.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, The State of the Voluntary Sector 2007, the survey by Third Sector and nfpSynergy, confirmed that, with nearly half of respondents thinking that the Government is exerting too much control and 71 per cent believing that what it means to be a charity is increasingly blurred, the sector really is suffering from an identity crisis. It wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that, when it comes to delivering services for the state, the supercharities might be fine, but the rest aren't so sure.

The theme of change

If there was an underlying theme in my book, it was that the sector is changing fast and that it needs to do a better job of communicating this to the public. For example, although I have reservations about the professionalising of the sector, there's no denying that there are some excellent charities out there with huge budgets and thousands of staff. Such bodies need competent managers, and competent managers cost money. The public needs to understand this, just as it needs to understand that, numerically, it applies only to a minority of organisations; but they won't be able to understand this until the misconception of all charity as unpaid altruism is dispelled.

The difficulty, of course, is that people will often hear what they want to. Responding to the passage about professionalism, at least one columnist congratulated me for slamming big charities - I hadn't done that; I had merely proposed that we distinguish between certain bodies - and spat out his dummy about how much charity chiefs are paid. Praise, it seems, isn't always a good thing. Thankfully, as I discovered when I appeared on BBC Radio 1 with Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, adversaries can be a good thing. After the initial bun-fight about independence, we found to our surprise that we more or less agreed about professionalism and transparency in the sector. There's hope yet.

For too long there have been two separate discourses going on, one for the benefit of the public and another for charity professionals. With the debate having been brought out into the open, perhaps the sector can start thinking more effectively and broadcasting less defensively about how it's changing. Whatever happens next, the answer to the title of the book - Who Cares? - is, clearly, a great many people.

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