OPINION: Our strength is born out of our sheer diversity

One of the key strengths of this sector is its diversity. Big, nationally known names such as the NSPCC sit alongside smaller, less well known ones such as Children Today, but neither is more or less valid than the other.

And the breadth of causes represented is almost as great as the range of needs, passions and interests that exist within the population. Irrespective of what cause these organisations represent, they are all characterised by the aim of improving the world in which we live.

But because of the breadth of interests, conflicts are inevitable and have always been part of our sector's history. Today there is conflict, between animal welfare/rights charities and many medical research charities.

A decade or so ago, there was a lively debate between supporters of community-based care for people with learning disabilities and advocates of residential care. And there often seems to be little common ground between organisations supporting the victims of crime and those seeking to rehabilitate offenders.

A few weeks ago (Third Sector, 11 February) a contributor suggested that many people's response to charities whose aims they disagree with is to deny them charitable status. Animal Aid's Richard Mountford pointed out the subjective nature of the judgements that lead people to support one charity over another and, in doing so, also pointed out what gives our inadequately named sector its unique character.

The subjectivity, which gives rise to conflicting aims among charities, is the same subjectivity that creates the passion and drive necessary to create each charity. Each is founded on subjective reactions to the world around us and on the resulting determination to change things using our skills, knowledge and experience to give those people, animals, or environments a better chance.

The resulting conflict may be difficult to manage, but it is also a large part of what gives the sector its vitality, its creativity and its diversity.

And out of that comes our strength and influence and the ability to actually achieve the change we seek.

We can't all agree with the aims of all charities, but Voltaire's famous words are apt: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Geraldine Peacock is a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner

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