Peter Cardy: Denigration and austerity hurt us all

A familiar cycle is playing out, writes our columnist: parties in opposition big up the voluntary sector, but seek to control it once elected

Peter Cardy
Peter Cardy

Q: It looks to me as if charities are suffering a triple whammy from this government. We are seeing cuts to central funding, cuts to local funding and an increasingly politicised and repressive attitude to regulation and control.

A: You're right up to a point, especially in England. The governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different politics and a different view of the value of charities. The Westminster government is going through a familiar cycle: parties not in office big up the value of the voluntary sector but, once elected, they seek to control it. What better methods than public denigration and choking off its funding under the cloak of austerity?

Q: The evidence that people no longer trust charities worries me. What do you think?

A: The public has good reason to be uncertain, and not just because of a few anomalies and scandals. The world used to be divided into charities doing good and companies making profits, but the landscape has changed. On the one hand there are different forms of non-profit organisation doing good, including some behaving just like for-profit bodies. On the other, there are for-profit organisations doing good and making profits by doing so. Gone are the days when, if you said "it's for charity", people instantly felt confident. Now people wonder just who is making a margin. However, you can take comfort that we are not estate agents, politicians or arms dealers.

Q: Over the past decade, the proportion of our funding from contracts grew to more than 80 per cent of our income. In the past couple of years, it has plummeted to less than 40 per cent and it's continuing to fall, killing off services. Is this the end of voluntary action?

A: You make me feel so old! A couple of decades ago we were preoccupied with whether charities should take government funding at all, and whether that would mean the end of independence. If you're looking into a financial abyss - and I'm sorry if this is no comfort - our worries were justified. Yet a huge part of the voluntary sector still does not receive government funding and never has. Perhaps this is the right time to rediscover independent voluntary action.

Q: What do you think about extending the Freedom of Information law to charities?

A: Who could find fault with the principle? But in practice the FoI is burdensome and resource-hungry for respondents. A concerted FoI campaign could bring a charity to a halt. In addition to the reporting already required of charities, social media means less and less is concealed: does the government really want to see more charitable resources diverted? It can also have perverse effects - organisations avoid disclosure by not writing things down, thereby decreasing transparency.

Q: After 20 years I am retiring as HR director of a well-known charity. The CEO has offered a contribution of £50 from the charity to the farewell party as I choose to arrange it. He has also made it clear that it can't be spent on alcohol. That seems rather mean to me.

A: I'm in two minds. £50 is certainly modest. But even though it is perfectly in order for the charity to make appropriate recognition of your service, spending funds raised for charitable purposes on a private party doesn't sit well with me. In the for-profit sector employers are also increasingly unenthusiastic about paying for parties. Maybe the CEO is imagining the morning-after headline "Poverty charity blows funds on staff binge".

Sector veteran Peter Cardy offers answers to your workplace dilemmas. Contact him at

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