Debra Allcock Tyler: Too many charities? It's like saying there are too many types of biscuit

One principle of a free democracy is the ability of people to come together in service of something they care about, regardless of whether or not someone else is already doing it, writes our columnist

Why shouldn't donors, beneficiaries and volunteers have choices, asks Debra Allcock Tyler
Why shouldn't donors, beneficiaries and volunteers have choices, asks Debra Allcock Tyler

There are some utterances that bring a brief spurt of irritation followed by an overwhelming feeling of ennui. One in particular is "there are too many homeless/children's/cancer/animal/military/youth charities". Really? That's a bit like saying there are too many types of chocolate biscuit. Says who? Those who don't like chocolate? Those who are manufacturing biscuits and don't like competition?

Too many charities relative to what, exactly? Most of the arguments relate either to economies of scale, or the funding available, or the number of beneficiaries. For me, these aren't convincing arguments - either way, however, the more fundamental issue is choice. Why shouldn't donors, beneficiaries and volunteers have choices? I might care about animals and want to donate or volunteer. But suppose I don't like the way the RSPCA does things and prefer the PDSA? If only a restricted number of animal charities are 'allowed' to exist, my choices are limited. Hardly democratic. We would hit the roof if we were told we could buy our bread at only one supermarket or buy only one kind of car.

And even supposing we stopped being a free democracy and told people how many charities there could be - and, ergo, who they could volunteer for or donate to - who would decide how many that would be? And how would you do the calculation? Based on money? Beneficiary numbers? Availability of volunteers?

One principle of a free democracy is the ability of people to come together in service of something they care about, regardless of whether or not someone else is already doing it and thinks they're doing it better than anyone else (which they always do!) or, indeed, if others don't think their cause is important.

If I am unhappy with the NHS or relevant charities, I am gloriously free to set up a charity called Women With BUMS (Bloody Unbearable Menopausal Symptoms). So what if I have only three volunteers, 20 beneficiaries and £5,000 in the bank? So long as I meet the public benefit requirement, I can do it. And if I then want to set up another completely separate charity for Men Living With Women With BUMS, I'm free to do that too. (I suspect I'd get a lot of support for that one!)

The belief that there are too many charities is pardonable from those outside our sector, who are less likely to see the bigger picture and more likely to see donors and volunteers as willing and obedient stooges and beneficiaries as voiceless, choiceless victims who should be grateful for whatever they get from whomever is allowed to give it.

But that belief is, for me, incomprehensible when held by those within the sector. To them I say this: all right, if you genuinely believe that there really are too many charities, close yours down and that will be one less. Should the Charity Commission now prepare for the stampede of charities ready to throw themselves on their swords? No? Thought not.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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