Mark Flannagan on how the sector can get off the back foot

As debate rages about the place of the charity sector in society, it behoves us all to listen to the critics and understand how we can improve, writes the chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

Like it or not, there is a vital debate going on within our sector, and it is probably overdue. The coming to the surface of some public concern about the ways charities fundraise has pitted sector leaders against each other about the best way forward. Many of us look on as this debate rages, concerned about the lack of real evidence to back up some of the more lurid newspaper headlines and equally concerned that we cannot win in a debate that assumes charity should be all about sacrifice by dedicated volunteers and that anyone who works for a charity must be in it for the money.

It hurts to see a sector that I believe is vital to the public morality of this country being denigrated and attacked. Many of us are at heart people of conscience, though we strive to be "business-like" in running our charities. But we need to acknowledge where we might be failing as a sector and seek to address public concerns. While doing the latter, we need to act in line with our values, avoiding the temptation to take a corporate approach that is all about defending rather than learning and adapting.

Here are five things we ought to do to properly engage and to begin to move forward.

First, can someone please provide detailed and relevant evidence about public confidence or otherwise in charities on the issues being discussed? Maybe Third Sector can commission some independent polling and analysis? I would certainly welcome this as a valuable tool. With such evidence we might begin to address the current narrative and also agree where there are failings.

Second, I disagree with self-regulation as an answer to complaints about bad practice. It is a very British, very corporate means of avoiding anything with real teeth. We have seen self-regulation fail to inspire public confidence in the newspaper industry and anything less than independent oversight and action to correct wrongs will be seen as self-serving.

Third, we need to tell each other the truth and demonstrate a willingness to be a very strong critic of practices and assumptions within our own sector. Of course it can be annoying that the chair of the Charity Commission causes us problems when he speaks out. But perhaps he has touched a public nerve. He should, after all, not be "one of us". His role is to step back from our world and regulate it. There is likely to be a large dose of unpalatable truth in what he says.

Fourth, we need to get off the back foot and explain the public good that we do. The Prime Minister’s big society was derided by many, but the concept of shared public value for the common good is core to our raison d’être. We are on the side of the angels. We cannot let anything get in the way of that fact and that message.

Fifth, we ought to be comfortable that, for many of us, this sector is a career choice. I have close to 30 years working in charities and I don’t see it as a second-class career. I have worked in charities as an active choice and, I hope, because I am good at it. A dedicated career, pursuing good, helping people, creating a better society is something to be shouted about. We have a particular skill set. We are not second-class citizens who would fail to make a success anywhere else. We are good at what we do and what we do does good.

Mark Flannagan is chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer

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