Sue Tibballs: A climate of fear that is damaging campaigning

Collateral damage from the demonising of charities is not in the public interest, writes our columnist

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

The chief executive of a large grant-giving trust recently told me that the various government measures aimed at further regulating the charity sector were influencing the funding decisions of his trust and others. The bark of these measures might be worse than their bite, he said, but they were creating a climate of fear that was causing funders to contract.

He also said: "It feels like the politicians had expenses; the bankers had Libor; the media had hacking – so now it is the charity sector’s turn." As if corruption in society is endemic and, look, even the charity sector is at it too! But what strikes me is that our crimes are not of the same order. We are under pressure for paying senior management too much, for over-aggressive fundraising and for being, well, just too big and well off. Some legitimate questions are raised, but none of them is in the same league as the other practices outlined above: the first one is in clear breach of the rules; the last two are illegal.

You could say that the sector’s main crime is that it is acting in a more commercial manner. But let’s not forget that governments have played a major part in driving this. Gone are the days of grants to pay charities’ core costs. Today they can secure public funding only for the provision of services or discrete projects. They are not seen as a good thing in themselves and supported, as they used to be. Charities can exist only if they bring in other funds.

Little of this has much to do with the campaign sector. Whether they are a local residents association, a small campaigning group or the campaign team within a bigger charity, most campaigners will not be using public funding. If they represent an overtly political cause, they have often chosen not to become charities in the first place. So campaigners are, by necessity, spending only that money they have secured from trusts, donations or trading. Funds to campaign with are therefore minimal, which is why the support of the trusts is so crucial. And campaigners are up against governments, corporates and the media, all of which campaign all the time and have incomparably more resources and power.

Part of our government is essentially one big campaign right now – to keep Britain in Europe. It regularly spends our money on campaigns. And now, I notice, it is using its campaigns to fundraise for itself. The This Girl Can campaign, launched by Sport England with £10m of lottery money, has set up a partnership with Marks & Spencer so that 8 per cent of all profits from apparel with the TGC logo goes to Sport England – which already gets £250m of public money each year. Wouldn’t most consumers think this was a charity fundraiser? And all this when the Charity Commission is telling charities how to manage their commercial partnerships. What next? Proceeds from men’s socks funding the probation service? Bras supporting the maternity services?

There are some questions to be asked of big charities – but also of this government. My real concern, however, is that this spat is causing damage to a campaign sector that cannot access public funds and relies heavily on trusts and foundations that now feel nervous. This collateral damage is absolutely not in the public interest.

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