Comment: The tale of the community lifeboat

"New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies," said George Bernard Shaw, "then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths."

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

To judge from the reception for the lecture at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce by Martin Brookes, the director of research at New Philanthropy Capital, on the need for performance measurement of charities, his thinking's still at the blasphemy stage. But we need to understand better what charities do: if, as they assert, they're better than anyone else at what they do, they have to back that assertion.

That said, truth isn't exclusive: two things can be right at the same time. Throw the question open to discussion and we'll find lots of answers - and limits to the inquiry, such as that voluntary action is of inestimable intangible value for community.

Professor Alex Murdock of London South Bank University recently drew my attention to Caister lifeboat station on the Norfolk coast. In 1969 the RNLI closed the station, probably with good reason, because there's another at Great Yarmouth, just a few miles away. Yet the people of Caister were not to be deterred and it's now the only independent lifeboat station in the country. "How has it managed to raise the money and not only survive," asks Murdock, "but actually thrive and celebrate its independence in a context where there is, in effect, a national monopoly and no public funding at all?"

The answer is community action. In 2004, media coverage led to a surge in donations, and two of the station's boats are now named after Bernard Matthews, the poultry baron, and Jim Davidson, the comedian. Fireworks nights, concerts - you name it, they've done it.

It's not that performance is irrelevant - the lifeboat has saved more than 2,000 lives since 1845 - but that charity is about inputs and processes as well as outputs and outcomes.

In his lecture, Brookes reversed the dictum of Charity Commission chair Dame Suzi Leather that charities "complete us", by saying that "the problems charities address are an affront to us". Two perspectives: volunteer and beneficiary, helper or helped? Discuss.

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

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