Opinion: Enterprise will not supersede our giving past

Geraldine Peacock's opening formal statement of intent as the new chair of the Charity Commission to charity finance directors in a lecture at the London School of Economics may come to be seen as a turning point.

She talked both about "a bold new era", as she put it, and about charity becoming business enterprise. Alas, she doesn't see these as divergent paths.

Charities, she believes, must get away from what she called rather inelegantly its "donatory" culture, and cease operating "cap in hand". To many of us, this is the simple disinterested wish of people to help others by giving money. The giving of alms is a virtue with its roots deep in the major religions. It is not something to "move away from".

But to move toward what? The "bold new era" is about generating more income by being more like a business - which is not necessarily the same as being more businesslike. It means, to use a current ugly phrase that speaks all too well of those who use it regularly, "sweating your assets" and being more entrepreneurial.

Many modernisers make their case as if the world was as it was 25 years ago. No one walking down a high street, opening their post or reading the annual report of a major charity can seriously believe that the rattling of tins is the only way that the money comes in.

Yes, we do want the sector to think long and hard about how it can raise more money. But an organisation that makes the decision to get the greater proportion of its income from business activities (the clear inference of Geraldine Peacock's words) does three things.

First, it unbalances its own structure. Marketing and business people and fundraisers are going to have a higher profile and will increase in numbers more than those actually delivering the charity's objectives, making policy and campaigning.

Second, the public, which wants to give, will be alienated if it is made to feel, however unintentionally, that it is a second-best bet for raising funds.

Third, the managerial, commercial ethos, which now afflicts almost all public agencies from schools to the care of older people, will creep even more insidiously into the voluntary sector. That may be a "new" era, but it is hardly a "bold" one.

Terry Philpot is a writer and a trustee of three charities

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