Joe Saxton: Independence for charities is a mirage

What the sector really needs is influence, not impotence, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

A lot is said about independence for charities. Sector bodies worry about whether the latest policy change from government makes us more or less independent. Commentators fret about our independence; foundations even sponsored a commission on the issue.

Independence for charities is a mirage. Independence doesn't exist. It can't exist and it shouldn't exist.

Charities thrive because of the network of stakeholders that make their work and success possible. Charities are dependent on these stakeholders to do their work. Charities depend on donors. Charities depend on funders. Charities depend on volunteers and staff. Charities depend on income from government. Charities depend on the support of government and MPs. The list goes on. It's hard to imagine a charity could be dependent on no one and nothing. Even the best endowed foundation depends on flourishing investments, great staff, successful projects and so on.

The search for independence is not just quixotic, but also counter-productive. The most sustainable relationships have mutual dependence. My wife and I depend on each other. A company and its customers depend on each other. A charity shop and its volunteers depend on each other. If one part of a partnership doesn't need or depend on the other, its influence is greatly diminished. The search for independence is also the path to a lack of influence.

Let's assume the sector achieves this nirvana-like state of independence from government. The corollary of this is that it doesn't depend on us. So although we have reached this heavenly state of being able to tell government exactly what we think, it has reached the equally heavenly state of being able to ignore us with impunity. We can, of course, speak truth to power: a strongly worded letter to The Times or the charities minister feels good. But government can stick up two fingers in response, knowing the sector can rant and rave as much as it likes but no longer has influence. The quest for independence is a quest for impotence.

What the sector needs is influence and greater mutual dependence. If we want our partnerships, our relationships to work more effectively, we must be as dependent on our partners as they are on us.

Let me give an example. Many companies, such as Serco and Capita, are highly dependent on government for their income. But government is also highly dependent on those firms for the delivery of government services. Heard of the lobbying act for companies? No, me neither. Companies can lobby with impunity while charities are hamstrung. The government is way more wary of upsetting companies than charities. We just don't matter enough.

It is not independence we should be seeking, but relevance and influence. We need to stop trying to be viewed as saintly do-gooders who speak truth to power.

Instead, we need to be viewed as an indispensable part of 21st-century Britain, vital to government service delivery and to helping the vulnerable and dispossessed. Independence leaves us shouting from the sidelines when we need to be at the heart of the action. All sides need to understand that charities, and their beneficiaries, are messed with at their peril.

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

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