Larger charities must 'give up some power', says Shelter head

Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing and homelessness charity, tells an NPC conference that the charity sector has to ask itself some difficult questions about the balance of power

Polly Neate
Polly Neate

Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, has called on larger charities to give up some of the power they hold in order to help the sector regain public trust.

Speaking at the annual conference of the think tank NPC in London yesterday, Neate said that in order for the sector to get off the back foot it had to face difficult questions about power and the privileged positions enjoyed by some charities.

She said that although the sector had power it was concentrated in the hands of a few organisations.

This power was consolidated by large charities in the way they used their brands, which Neate said was "the enemy of partnerships and the enemy of sharing power".

She said: "It stops civil society, or the idea of charity, from having a brand, by which I mean from having a clearly recognised identity and a set of understood values."

Neate made some implicit criticism of schemes such as the Understanding Charities Group, which was developed by a group of charities with the aim of improving public trust in charities, although she did not name any particular initiative or organisation.

"I do not think that people are losing trust in charities because they do not understand how charities work," she said. "I think the sector does have some comms problems, but that is a symptom not a cause."

She criticised the significant sums spent by some charities that helped them consolidate their own positions but resulted in minor policy changes for beneficiaries.

"What we are getting at the moment is quick wins from reasonably big charities that cost a lot of money," Neate said. "We are putting in a fortune to make a teeny-weeny impact for the beneficiaries, when we should be bringing some of that power closer to our beneficiaries and looking at different ways of achieving change.

"Some of those policy changes we are seeing shore up the privilege of those organisations, but they might not have a big impact on people’s lives."

Neate called for a conversation about how the sector could share power more equally and said some charities should give up their privilege to help the sector develop a common narrative that would convince people they should trust charities again.

"If we are going to think of ourselves as that third force, we are going to have to be more united," she said.

"If civil society is going to realise its power as a third force, the big charity brands will have to make sacrifices. For people with privilege, it will hurt. Giving up privilege hurts. If it doesn’t, you are not doing it right."

She said the sector was not "eyeballing each other" and talking about how it could share power.

"I really believe that the only way we as a sector can seize the moment is if organisations with power face their privilege and have the courage to address it."

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