Craig Dearden-Phillips: Whoever forms a government, we must just get on with it

There was little mention of the sector in the main parties' manifestos, but charities are resilient and more embedded in wider society than before, writes our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Well, well, well! That wasn't the result most of us expected – not least myself, who predicted a clear Tory victory.

The first thing to say is that the fundamentals today are the same as they were yesterday: a flattish economy, Brexit clattering along the track a little louder and a rather fragmentary approach to the charity sector from government.

The main worries for charities for the rest of this year are threefold. The first concerns where we sit in the political scheme of things. Our sector was barely mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, bar a vow to increase the number of public service mutuals. The Labour manifesto, likewise, had little to say beyond lots more money for the public sector.

There has been little indication of where charities fit into any new government's vision or any of the bigger challenges facing a new administration, such as expanding opportunity or improving the economy outside London and the south east of England.

For charities, therefore, there is little to grab on to – except, perhaps, for things already out there, such as mental health and community cohesion. The challenge for the sector is to find ways to connect to what is likely to be a short-lived minority or coalition government pending another election later this year or next that might produce a more decisive outcome.

The second concern for charities is that we are now approaching a decade of austerity. Reserves have been run down and the recent collapses of the Lifeline Project, 4Children and a few others show a sector that is running out of options. Ten years ago, it was all about winning more public sector contracts. Today, we are as likely to be handing them back.

The third is that there are signs the economy is already on the skids, with inflation up and both households and businesses keeping their wallets closed until the shape of our future relationship with Europe looks clearer.

This will translate, first and foremost, into growing social need into 2018 as the weakest take the pain. Regardless of who grabs the reins of power, expect in the short term more food banks, kids on free school meals and hits on the Citizens Advice website. For those same charities, a poor economy means lower cash donations, fewer grants and more limited commercial options as absolute need becomes the focus.

Are there any causes for optimism? Of course. The charity sector's resilience is impressive. It staggers out of the bunker stunned but seldom beaten. It also has a really strong cadre of top leaders who could easily succeed in either commerce or government. And we do self-renew, despite everything. I, for one, am looking forward to Julia Unwin's forthcoming review of the sector.

But perhaps my greatest cause for optimism regardless of political turbulence is the gradual convergence of our sector with others. The truth is that our sector no longer stands alone in its efforts to change society. We are working far more with progressive businesses, social enterprises and the public sector than we did a decade ago.

Viewed this way, our sector is bigger and more embedded in wider society than it ever has been. Our values are more broadly shared than they were a generation ago. Remember that the biggest recruiter of graduates in the UK is now Teach First, not banks or consultancies, as was the case in my day.

Ours is a sector that, with some imagination, plays a different kind of leading role than simply the mopper-up of society's messes. We can, with the right strategy and leadership, change society from where we are, whoever is in charge.

For now, however, it's hold-your-hats time, and we just have to get on with it.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives

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