Editorial: Are charities now fair game?

Sections of society want charities to be like Lady Bountiful, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

There has always been a section of society that cherishes a vision of charity in which Lady Bountiful ministers to the deserving poor. In this vision, charities do not receive money from the state, their staff are all volunteers and they keep their noses out of anything political. They might do some tin-rattling, but they certainly don't do street fundraising.

It's easy to see why those who promote this vision dislike much of the modern charity world, where nearly 40 per cent of the sector's income is from government grants or contracts, its paid workforce totals three-quarters of a million, fundraising methods are more pushy than ever and some charities campaign for political change in their cause areas.

The followers of Lady Bountiful seem to be on a bit of a roll at the moment, possibly because they sense that the political wind is in their favour. As one perceptive sector tweeter put it last week, there is a lot of negative press going on and it feels is if charities are fair game - see the recent criticism of the RSPCA by politicians, some national newspapers and others.

In another example, the Conservative MP Jeremy Lefroy proposed sanctions against charities that pay any staff member a salary of more than £100,000. And in December, ministers advised local councils to cut grants to charities that "lobby and call for more state regulation and more state funding".

As for charities that deliver public services, this week's report by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector says they are treated as no different from the private sector and are muzzled by a worrying combination of 'self-editing' and explicit contract conditions forbidding them to speak out.

Meanwhile, it's open season on street fundraising after the Tag Campaigns expose, and commentators of the right have been suggesting that charities led by former Labour officials form a fifth column dedicated to thwarting the government.

Straws in the wind, perhaps - some more serious than others. The message for charities is: stick carefully to your mission, keep a wary eye on your opposition and think 'independence' at all costs.

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