Paul Streets: We must regain empathy for disadvantaged people

It's vital that we don't let layers of management that make modern solutions possible get in the way of our ability to empathise, writes our correspondent

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

Professor Ian Bruce, founder and president of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at the Cass Business School, recently reflected on changes in charities over the past 25 years and called for the sector to lead a "resurgence of empathy for disadvantaged people".

A day in the foundation’s grant-making panel meetings would corroborate this need for even the most sceptical of observers. A catalogue of requests from small charities all tackling complex social problems illustrates just how many people are disadvantaged and would be overlooked if it wasn’t for their local small charities.

I agree with Ian that the third sector can and must do more for the people who need it most. To do this we need to shine a much brighter light on the sector’s tremendous capacity to address issues that affect fewer of us. Helping people on the margins is where a good deal of charitable work began – including the Lloyds Bank Foundation, founded by the Reverend Henry Duncan in the 1800s – and it’s important not to lose sight of this drive for social responsibility in its earliest form. Long before charities employed paid staff, or society was thinking up CSR initiatives, people were reaching individually with compassion to those in need around them, and the third sector grew up to formalise that.

Sadly, some of the issues haven’t changed much, but as centuries have passed charities have become more sophisticated in their ability to address them, which is both a blessing and a curse. We now have the muscle to invest heavily in solving social issues, applying modern solutions – creating strategies that are well-evidenced and combining tried-and-tested methods with innovation. Yet we must take care to ensure that the structures and layers of management that make modern solutions possible don’t obstruct the empathy that inspired the charity in the first place.

Where best to look for inspiration? For me it’s time to turn the voluntary sector narrative towards the small and local charities that dominate it. It's time to remind the public of charity at its best – tackling the problems that so often appear in indignant news headlines but which less often prompt the public empathy or societal action they deserve. This shift might also force us to address serious questions about why these vital services are increasingly so dependent on philanthropic largesse rather than public commitment as local and central government continuously cuts back services and funding to the needy and those who reach them.  

Fortunately, I think we finally have a ministerial team led by Tracey Crouch and those in her civil service team who understand and support this ideal. We hope their work on the promised civil society strategy will look to lead government a little closer to providing a fairer system, in which the expertise of charities rooted in local communities enriches their policy-making. Let’s hope that they’ll even overhaul an unfair commissioning process, making sure that the charities doing the most thankless work with the most complex beneficiaries no longer go unnoticed or lose out on funding to their larger counterparts. Time will tell. But whatever happens, government opportunity stars rarely align for long, so we need to make the most of it when they do.

This requires third sector leaders to lead the resurgence of empathy for the disadvantaged. To celebrate the hundreds of small charities most people haven’t even heard of, helping people with issues most people don’t know exist. Let’s move them from the margins into the spotlight. They deserve our immense support and admiration.

Paul Streets is chief cxecutive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales @lbfew @PaulStreets_

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