For years the voluntary sector has been on the back foot, reacting to a narrative set by others – from the soundbite over the substance of big society to fat-cat pay levels, fundraising and failing governance. In the meantime, David Cameron talked about social reform but delivered it on terms set by George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling. Austerity; the work programme; universal credit; transforming rehabilitation – all were disasters for the disadvantaged. The mismatch between rhetoric and reality would have done George Orwell proud.
But when Theresa May, our new Prime Minister, says she means to fight the "burning injustice" of being born poor, black or working class, it is time to get on the front foot to frame a narrative we know only too well.
Let’s start by restoring some pride and with some facts that establish our credentials.
The voluntary sector in the UK is made up of predominately small and local charities – there are 28 for every large one. These are run mostly by scrawny, underfed alley cats, living life on the front line of disadvantage or need, picking up the pieces pre-Brexit society has ignored for years. There are 175,000 small local charities reaching millions who face disadvantage, disability, prejudice, poor health, terminal illness, old age and isolation. They are at the heart of burning injustice: society’s Samaritans, crossing divided roads.
When Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, signals he will "scale back on austerity", we need to be at the table showing how we can help May unite her divided Britain.
And as we reframe Britain internationally, let’s celebrate the fantastic large charities woven into the fabric of our society. They embody the best of Britain at a time when we fear for the worst. Imagine a world with no Amnesty International, Cancer Research UK, Oxfam, RNIB or RNLI, to name a few. Massively successful, respected brands run by leaders who embody public service values over private wealth – earning a small fraction of the salary of a FTSE chief executive.
Our sector is respected and copied worldwide – it is a great British export. So when Boris Johnson, the new Foreign Secretary, talks about Britain with a "new global identity", we’re a part of that, something to be proud of when we might otherwise cringe on the world stage. We are a sector committed to the disadvantaged, to internationalism, refugees, development and human rights, funding world-leading research and collaborating globally. We demonstrate how public service meets voluntary action for the common good. We are a model for western economies struggling with exactly this in the face of low growth, globalisation and declining state coffers.
So what should we ask for?
1. Place us at the heart of policy as a partner. We are part of the solution, not a problem to be over-regulated and chastised.
2. Divided Britain won’t be healed by siloed, standardised, vertically commissioned services. Let us help think through how to reach people as they live, in the communities they live in, rather than through the services by which they are so often defined.
3. Recognise thatwe’re mostly small and we’re local. Ninety-seven per cent of charities have incomes of less than £1m. That’s why we work and why we can reach our divided nation and you can’t. Support us to stay that way through grants that trust us to know it better than you will ever do, rather than contracts suited to Serco and G4S.
4) Think longer term. Reconsider Treasury rules that focus on singular outcomes and short-term fixes. The divisions in society are deep – without a funded focus on prevention, we’ll never sort it.
Of course, there’ll be those who say I’m clutching at straws. Perhaps – but let’s work with what we have. May is a Prime Minister who has prioritised tackling violence against women and girls and modern slavery, and who has challenged the police on how they address domestic violence. I gather she wiped clear all of her Home Office diary commitments on appointment as PM – except meetings on domestic abuse.
Let’s make sure we’re still in the diary while she’s in No 10.
Paul Streets is the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation. @PaulStreets_, @LBFEW