Opinion: Let's practise what we preach

Rachel O'Brien

The serial campaigner for equal rights, Peter Tatchell, has just expressed his astonishment that the Government is not prepared to strip charities of their tax status if they fail to show a commitment to equal opportunities. But simply having a policy on equal opportunities does not amount to a hill of beans unless it is acted upon.

Many will be aware that equal-opportunities objectives are regularly compromised because of funding and time constraints. When they cast an eye around the office they may see the evidence of those decisions - few non-white faces around until the night porters arrive, an age span of 10-20 years, lots of women at the bottom, plenty in the middle and still too few at the top.

It is easy to be persuaded that quality of services has to be a priority.

That we must set aside issues of staff and work practice in the name of getting on with doing good. The obvious counter to this is that the two things are fundamentally linked. This raises thorny issues.

While it is hard to see how government could justify applying a different set of rules for charities than for the public sector, there is no room for complacency. There are also new challenges ahead - the White Paper on the new Human Rights and Single Equalities Commission identifies the voluntary sector as being a key partner for delivery, but does not define what this means.

Charities have a strange relationship with the corporate social responsibility agenda. CSR provides a way of levering money out of those companies wishing to develop their reputation for charity activity and community involvement.

The increased focus on CSR and reputation management has given the sector a new campaigning agenda. Some of the highest profile NGO-led media stories in recent times have been those that tried to highlight the companies whose commercial practices are deemed to be anti-social and irresponsible.

Is it time the sector - led by the big national and international charities - now applied the CSR agenda to itself?

- Rachel O'Brien is director of external affairs at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Lisa Harker is recovering from an accident.

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