Lucy Caldicott and Matthew Sherrington: Charities are failing at change and justice

Time and again, the charity sector has been challenged to raise its game – and has failed. What is the point of charities: and is it time for new models and leadership?

Lucy Caldicott and Matthew Sherrington
Lucy Caldicott and Matthew Sherrington

There are moments when the scales fall from eyes, and you start seeing things afresh, perhaps as they always were. Moments that become turning points. 

Covid-19 should be the biggest moment of all.

After a decade of cuts to public spending, lockdown revealed the level of risk that vulnerable people were exposed to. 

The elderly in care homes, those shielding with medical conditions, the homeless, families using food banks, hungry children on free school meals. 

Structural racism means nearly half of black families live in poverty, and people of colour in the UK are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and the economic fallout. 

What on earth has gone wrong, for charities to have let inequality and people’s vulnerability get worse?

It is another scales-fall-from-eyes moment to realise the government doesn’t care about charities, or much of the work they do, swatting the sector away with a measly £750m emergency support, in spite of sterling efforts by umbrella bodies. 

By letting government off the hook charities have failed, and are left begging for their survival.  

To add salt to the wounds, The Charity Commission recently reported that while public trust is recovering after recent years, the percentage of people believing charities are important in society – read relevant – has plummeted 20 points in five years, from 75 per cent to 55 per cent.   

Time and again, the charity sector has been challenged to raise its game, to redefine itself in the face of shifting sands with government, a growing, purpose-driven private sector, and wavering public trust. 

It has had ample kicks in the pants, from the “stick to the knitting” lobbying bill, fundraising and safeguarding scandals and high-profile governance failings.  

It hasn’t managed to. Individual charity self-interest seems to get in the way of a concerted voice, leaving the sector as a whole looking moribund, sclerotic, pedestrian, supplicant. How did we get here? 

There have been times (but, tellingly, not for a while), when British civil society has swelled in response to big ideas. 

The charity sector grew out of parallel Victorian traditions – both pretty paternalistic, to be fair – of campaigning for change to address social ills, and delivering charity to those in need. 

The 40s and 50s saw another burst, reflecting the new sentiment around the welfare state, responding to pressing post-war issues, and Britain’s colonial legacy. 

In the 60s, 70s and early 80s, baby boomers came of age with optimism and idealism, and spawned campaigning voices for the environment, human rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights. 

Since then the boomers have grown up and become complacent. It seems white, middle-class managerial do-gooding has gone hell-for-leather down the sticking-plaster route of service delivery, and given up on demanding change and justice. 

Big ideas to solve world problems now come second to organisational growth and ambition.

Big charity has corporatised, unrepresentative of those it serves. 

Co-opted by the government to deliver services, charities have accepted compromising cost and quality to compete not only with each other but also with private sector suppliers for whom the mission is not of uppermost consideration. 

Institutional ego – that imperative to grow, to be the biggest – has led charities by the nose to embrace the contract culture, always in denial they were subcontractors, always pretending it was their own work being funded. 

Charities won’t blow the bank to put themselves out of business (that idealistic ambition), in case of a rainy day. And so it goes on. 

The sector has compromised itself, silent to protect delivering services, when it should have shouted for justice. 

How has the sector flattered and convinced itself that not rocking the boat gave it access and influence, only to find, as Covid-19 shows, that we’ve been taken for mugs?

So through complacency, co-option and compromise, the sector has ended up complicit in the state of things, accepting the constraints of charity regulation that bind it, with a regulator wanting charities to conform to a nineteenth-century idea of what the public thinks a charity should be. 

Charities, instead of using their power to change things, or sharing it, have hoarded it, protected it, and simply not done what they could have done. 

If change and justice is the goal, what is the point of charitable status if the regulatory constraints inhibit us from doing what’s needed? 

Have we really given up our voice for the tax breaks and gift aid? For so little?

Finally, what comes next? It can’t be more of the same. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter suggest the big issues are, finally, inequality and injustice, together with climate change. People have had enough. 

Young people have gravitated towards movements and moments, from Occupy, to Extinction Rebellion, to the Schools Strike and Black Lives Matter. 

People organise, raise money and do things outside the structure of charities, not even thinking to use those that exist, never mind set up new ones. Purpose is no longer just for charities, but good business.

So to the next generation: we’ve failed so far, we’re no longer relevant, and people are turning away. The big ideas we face are clear. 

It’s your time to do it differently.

Lucy Caldicott supports charities on culture and equality @LucyCaldicott and Matthew Sherrington supports charities on leadership and communications @m_sherrington

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