Online comment: What's wrong with British charities? A modern-day parable

A 21st Century version of the Good Samaritan by Brian Seaton, principal trustee of Small Charity Support

A certain man was going from Chelsea to Westminster, and he fell among muggers, who beat him up and left him half dead. By chance, Larry, a well-to-do businessman, was going the same way. He was so distressed by the sight that he had to cross the road to pass by on the other side. In the same way, Percy, a well-known local politician, was also so distressed by the sight of the injured man that he had to pass by on the other side.

But when Sam, a street trader in the nearby run-down housing estate came by in his donkey cart he was moved by compassion, gave the injured man first aid, took him in his donkey cart to a nearby inn, bought him food and drink and gave him enough money to get home.

Often the story would end there. But not in this case.

Sam was so moved by the plight of the person he’d helped – and particularly the comment of the inn-keeper that it was not uncommon for people to get mugged on that road – that he decided to get together with some friends to set up a small charity to help the victims. Unfortunately his first application to the Charity Commission was rejected on the grounds that, although its proposed objects were indisputably of benefit to the individual victims, they did not meet the public benefit requirements for registration as a charity. However, with the help of a clever (and expensive) lawyer, Sam was able to redraft his charitable objects as being for the relief of the distress and inconvenience caused by mugged and injured persons forcing the general public to cross the road and pass by on the other side.

And so The Good Sam" charity was duly registered.

Sad to say, the inn-keeper was right – and "The Good Sam" charity was regularly called upon to help others mugging victims. And so it started to grow. Fundraising events were needed to supplement the donations of Sam and his friends, and Sam needed to employ an administration assistant to deal with all the calls for help and to organise the volunteers.

And still "The Good Sam" charity grew despite the difficulties in raising funds.

It took on a fundraiser who quickly realised that most of the victims were quite well off themselves (that was part of the reason they had been mugged) and were actually able to repay "The Good Sam" for the help they received. So a "victim’s contribution" system was introduced to supplement the charity’s income. And as the public benefit of keeping streets clear of the victims of mugging was promoted to other local authorities, the outsourcing of such services to "The Good Sam" charity became politically expedient and contracts to provide commissioned services started to come in.

As a result, the income from such primary purpose trading quickly and substantially outstripped the meagre income from voluntary donations. The charity set up its own chain of Good Sam Cafes to provide victims (and other members of the public, as a way of generating further income) with food and drink: being staffed by volunteers they were "more cost effective" than commercial cafes. And the growing fleet of iconic Good Sam trade-mark donkey carts (by now with superior facilities for the comfort of beneficiaries) became a well-loved sight in the community – particularly famong the victims of muggings.

"The Good Sam" charity soon became a local and then national phenomenon. Sam stood down as a Trustee to become the chief executive. And as the charity grew, so did the complexity of its operations and, therefore, Sam’s salary.

Businessman Larry & Politician Percy, now impressed by all the good work that Sam was doing, agreed to join The Good Sam charity as Trustees and were often seen out and about, promoting the cause at this high-profile event and that. The Good Sam Fun Run became a popular annual fundraising event, with I’ve Done the Good Sam Fun Run T-shirts in high demand as social status symbols. The Good Sam annual report proudly proclaims that it meets it charitable objects "by providing quality services that its beneficiaries are prepared to pay for".

Eventually Sam, now a wealthy man, decided to retire. His final charitable act was to use his wealth to set up a donkey sanctuary to provide a safe home for all the donkeys who had served The Good Sam charity so well, ferrying the victims of mugging to safe havens.

And the story does finally end with Sam being recognised for his services to charity by a Knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List.

So what’s wrong with all that – and British Charity?

For those charity trustees and executives with the skill and acumen to exploit the needs of others by running their charities like large profitable commercial businesses - nothing at all, clearly.

The problem is that most ordinary people – the man on the Clapham omnibus - understand charity as meaning "The voluntary donation of money/time/resources for the benefit of those in need" , which is the definition you’ll find in most dictionaries.

But the legal meaning of the term ‘charity’, as defined by the Charities Act, and hence the way in which many charities (particularly the larger ones) operate, is quite different. The problem is summed up rather nicely by none other than Lord Hailsham, who once said: " … the words ‘charity’ and ‘charitable’ bear, for the purposes of English law and equity, meanings totally different from the senses in which they are used in ordinary educated speech or, for instance, in the Authorised Version of the Bible."

Brian Seaton is principal trustee of Small Charity Support. This article is based on some real stories.

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