Hot Seat: Frank Prochaska

The sector brushed off criticisms by the historian at a Charity Commission keynote lecture. Sam Burne James reports

Frank Prochaska
Frank Prochaska

The author and Oxford history don Frank Prochaska delivered the keynote lecture at the Charity Commission's annual public meeting in September. Though not a familiar name to many in the sector, Prochaska has known William Shawcross, the commission's chair, for two decades, since he assisted Shawcross with a TV show about the monarchy. Prochaska has since been quoted several times by Shawcross, both in books and in speeches as commission chair.

So it came to be that Prochaska was asked to the commission's meeting to deliver what Shawcross said should be "an extraordinary lecture", one he hoped would provoke debate in the sector.

What followed was a history of the development – or, as Prochaska seemed to present it, the deterioration – of charity from Victorian times to the modern day. Prochaska said the sector had increasingly surrendered its independence as it and government became "so intertwined that it is rather fanciful to think of them as representing two distinct sectors".

He said that if politicians really believed in the importance of the core values of the sector, they would "lessen the unnecessary regulations on those institutions that do not receive state assistance and would increase the tax incentives to giving".

Prochaska's text has since been posted on the commission's website, complete with a health warning that the lecture "reflects the views and opinions of Dr Prochaska and does not constitute Charity Commission policy". The general reaction has been that the lecture was not quite the provocation Shawcross appeared to hope for.

Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change, says Prochaska misunderstood the difference between dependence on government funding and independence from the state: "There's nothing inevitable about getting a government grant or a contract and never speaking out again."

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity leaders group Acevo, goes further. Having read the speech because he could not make the meeting, Bubb says: "It's beyond parody that a historian with such an inaccurate grasp of modern charity should have been asked to give this lecture. His points will hardly trouble the sector in the way they might have been intended."

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