Joe Saxton: We should celebrate an increase in the number of charities and help them grow

Running and maintaining a charity is a demanding exercise and they deserve greater support, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

It's about the passion. It's about a small group of people, or even just one person, making it happen. This is how most charities are started. A small group of Quakers met in Oxford in 1942 to try to raise money for those affected by the Allied blockade of Greece. So Oxfam was born. A group of animal lovers met in a coffee shop in 1820s London to try to do more to protect animals. So the RSPCA was born. The list goes on.

I was reminded of the importance of the foresight, grit and passion that people needed to start charities when I revisited a small playground in Gloucestershire. It was started by a shepherdess in the 1980s who felt she had more land than she could use. Her vision was a place where disabled children and their families could enjoy the countryside with a specially designed playsite. On the warm day this August when I visited, two families were enjoying the playsite in the sunshine. The children were playing as the parents watched, knowing that the site had secure boundaries (unlike a beach) and that other children wouldn't point or stare (unlike many public playsites). The founder's vision lives on almost a decade after her death. The site is now run by, you guessed it, a small group of committed volunteers (and let me have a small moment of pride, because my mother was the shepherdess).

The challenge for most charities is not just the founding but the keeping going. The passion and excitement of founding leads inevitably to challenges: the grind of raising funds; the challenge of staying relevant and useful; the balance between a founder's vision and funder stipulations or user views; the need to meet increasing numbers of legal and regulatory requirements. Over time, the passion of founders is squeezed out by the processes and protocols that many charities grow to embrace. All these make running a charity, with or without staff, a demanding exercise.

For me the issue is how we support those start-up or "just-about-managing" charities. How do we help those little charities or community groups that just about every MP will claim are the bedrock of the community in their constituency? Small businesses get government support through their local enterprise partnerships in the form of local growth hubs to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Does government provide anything equivalent for charities and community groups? The irony is that ministers hand over far more to get charities to deliver contracts and services for local and central government, but don't really do anything to make them more robust and resilient.

Now, I think we want to encourage more people to do what my mother did and start something that will make a difference to people or the planet. I think we want more candles of social entrepreneurship in the darkness of austerity, climate change, poverty and hardship, not fewer. I say this because some see an increasing number of charities as a sign of regulatory failure, or believe more charities should merge. I disagree. Just as we celebrate small business start-ups as a sign of entrepreneurship, we should celebrate more charity (or community group) start-ups as a sign of social entrepreneurship. And we should give those start-ups all the help we can, not just to survive, but to thrive.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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