It’s the end of the world... or is it?

The economic downturn will hit hard the organisations that take the lion's share of charitable income, but many smaller groups will carry on as normal, writes the policy officer at the Directory of Social Change

Jay Kennedy, policy officer, Directory of Social Change
Jay Kennedy, policy officer, Directory of Social Change

The international financial system has ground to a halt, the corporate world is imploding with each passing day, and significant numbers of people are now losing their jobs.

Many in the voluntary sector are worried. We're already seeing the effects of rising unemployment leading to greater demand for many services we provide. And we're concerned about the income that supports these services - will donations plummet? Will local authorities cut grants at short notice? Will people stop donating to charity shops and ‘make do and mend' instead?

There is talk about this being a sort of refiner's fire for the charitable sector - organisations that have grown fat and lazy on the good years will be forged into leaner, more efficient ones, with the legions of staff who are supposedly sitting around doing nothing dumped into the ranks of unemployed. ‘Unsustainable', ‘inefficient' or ‘redundant' organisations will be driven en masse into credit-crunch induced shotgun-wedding mergers.

But applying Darwin's ‘survival of the fittest' logic to the voluntary sector seems slightly bizarre to me for several reasons. For one thing, it assumes that this process actually applies to business - that all the companies and businesses that are going under are inherently weak and deserving of their fate, which isn't the case. Many sound, small businesses are under threat just because of the overnight seizure of credit. So why apply the same logic to the voluntary sector?

Many charities will be affected by the recession to some extent and in different ways, depending on what they do and how they do it. But the really tectonic shifts are going to affect the several thousand organisations that take the lion's share of charitable income. This may involve mergers and some charities going under, but I don't think that necessarily means those charities were weak, or that those that will survive are necessarily more efficient or provide better services. The ones with the slickest marketing and fundraising could fare best. But how does that translate to more effective services at the frontline and better value for the donor?

The vast majority of smaller charities and community groups in this country will carry on as they always have. For these organizations, ‘make do and mend' has always been the motto anyway.

The volunteers who run them are used to finding creative solutions to get things done that don't always depend on money. It's people in communities getting together and doing things for themselves - whether it be looking after each other's children, cleaning up the park, or feeding the local homeless and hungry at Christmas.

If I lose my job, I will still pay £1.20 for my kids to attend the church playgroup. Everybody who runs it is a volunteer. They have virtually no overheads. Maybe they will have to wait until next year or the year after that to buy the new tables and chairs for the arts and crafts. For now, the old ones will just have to do. If the recession proves to be more powerful than the will of God and the church goes under, they will just have to find somewhere else for the kids.

My friend's arts group does pretty much everything on the back of its voluntary trustees. Last year they got a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund that swelled their coffers by a whopping £50,000. The project is now finished, and the temporary staff they hired to do it have left as planned. Next year, who knows how much their income will be? But it probably won't have much to do with the recession.

They'll keep going the way they have forever - raising money here and there, running a gallery in a space lent to them by benevolent property owners.

In the midst of all the stormclouds, it's hard to see a silver lining. We've been living in a credit-driven bubble, but the gleam of the consumer lifestyle and carefree debt has been dulled by a large dose of economic reality.

Is this entirely a bad thing? Of course it's bad when people lose their jobs. I'm worried about it the same as everybody else. But if the net effect is that we stop being so obsessed with buying the next thing and instead start devoting more time and energy to our neighbours and communities, society will be the better for it in the end.

Jay Kennedy is policy officer at the Directory of Social Change.

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