Opinion: Third Voice - Bring on the age of the 'self-employed' volunteer

Michael Brophy was chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation until 2002

Why is it that the profile of companies is so different in shape to that of charities? The former look like Mount Fujiyama, with the FTSE 100 as a snow-capped peak below which lie the FTSE 250, private companies and a broad base of several million self-employed - the Schedule E taxpayers.

By contrast, charities look more like one of those stalks from which people have picked all the sprouts - a small lump at the top and little else below. Curiously, people say there are too many charities. But I cannot understand, given the need, why there aren't many more.

The financial statistics are depressing. The biggest charities have several thousand employees and turnovers of £100m or more, but this is only small to medium size for a corporate. Charity Number 1,000 has only one employee, two volunteers and an income much less than the average house price.

Civil society cannot grow as we would like it to without more charities - or could it be that we need to encourage more individual charitable involvement? Looked at in this light, how can we create the equivalent of the self-employed in the non-profit sector? What would Charitable Schedule E taxpayers look like? You might say that volunteers in their millions already form this base, but I would seek to add a robust financial dimension to the time they give.

Such a development might look like this: I decide to do something charitable at some cost to myself - for example, I buy musical instruments and pay for a teacher to give free lessons to the children of poor Polish immigrants in Dalston. In the past year, this charitable act cost me £2,800. I write the expense on my tax return and claim the tax back. This would probably be challenged by HM Revenue & Customs. However, I'm advised that expenditures authenticated by receipts and vouched for as being in pursuit of a charitable object should be recoverable for tax purposes. If this is the case, then millions of people could recover tax on their altrusitic acts and Citizen Direct might become the generic name of a whole new set of cost-recovering community volunteers.

There are variations on this theme, but it's time we loosened our thinking on how to become reinvolved in our communities and spend our own money to help others, before this ever more greedy Chancellor grabs it to waste on bloated public services and ever escalating public service pensions.

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