Opinion: Are the big guns having all the fun?

All the way back in 2005, back when Gordon Brown was still considered competent - more Stalin, less Mr Bean - and the Vicar of Albion was blithely flying around in Blair Force One, saving the entire world, there was a debate in the House of Lords about the bill that later became the Charities Act 2006. One of the speakers was the legendary Baron Dahrendorf, sometime director of the London School of Economics, who declared that "we are witnessing a split in the charity and voluntary sector".

That was then. This is now. Now we are witnessing an accelerating split - or splits: a split between charities that are involved in public service delivery and those that aren't; and between the big and the small.

Most attempts to chart the dimensions of the sector arrive at a similar conclusion. For instance, the latest almanac from umbrella body the NCVO found that more than half of charities do not take the Queen's shilling, which it says "highlights a division in the sector between those with close financial ties with statutory agencies and those with no financial ties".

Since many of those involved in public service delivery are also big charities, the bosses of these organisations form an elite, dominating discourse. Their organisations often have major brand presence; theirs are familiar faces on the public speaking circuit. This is fine - most are caring, clever and charismatic - but it mustn't blind us to the fact that, for many, the concerns of this elite are of only incidental interest, and may - vide, say, the Small Charities Coalition - even be objects of scorn.

It's often noted that a minuscule proportion of the sector accounts for a massive proportion of its income; conversely, 176,400 charities - 89 per cent of the registered sector - bring in less than £250,000 a year. Of these, 114,600 have annual incomes under £10,000. Although many of them aren't interested in publicity - and are thus less visible - we mustn't forget that the majority of charities are more used to tea and toast than champagne and turbot.

It matters not that it's hard to talk coherently about this fissuring sector. But we should be concerned if this reflects, rather than resists, our increasingly divided society.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: nptseddon@hotmail.com.

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