Rosamund McCarthy: Membership charities are underrated

Their AGMs might be messy and time-consuming but these organisations stay the course, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

Are membership charities a dying breed? Based on my experience of advising start-ups, new charities that plan to involve voting members are as rare as a white eagle. Why?

Sometimes it is because founders want to retain control of their vision. If they can hand-pick trustees and members, they won't lose control of their baby. And then there are the young activists, who view charity structures as too rigid.

Many of the best-known membership charities, such as the RSPCA, were founded more than 100 years ago. These days, you don't need an organisation to organise. The web and social networks can be used to create single-issue campaigns, and thousands of people can participate without any need for an intermediate charity.

But you do need an organisation if you want to have a lasting impact. Informal activism without legal structures can easily wither on the vine. Where's Make Poverty History now? And Barack Obama's e-network, so vital in getting him elected, does not seem to be swinging behind his healthcare reforms.

You also need an organisation if you want democratic structures. Whether it's the Women's Institute, student unions or Amnesty International, what many long-established charities have in common is that their members get to vote. In membership charities, people can get together and propose resolutions, which have to be discussed on the floor of the AGM. The fact that you can't even imagine this happening at the Labour or Conservative party conferences says a lot about the state of our political structures.

Some membership charities put up more barriers to participation than others, but those that really walk the walk should be cherished. Walking the walk means truly engaging, however time-consuming or messy. It means the possibility of factions, infiltration and disputes. But membership charities that take the risk also unleash huge potential for long-lasting change.

Given the decline in both trade union and political party membership, membership charities are the nearest thing to democratic structures that we have. Perhaps some young activists and new founders would be more comfortable setting up membership charities if some of our iconic charities showed the way. I therefore lay down a challenge to Oxfam: give your thousands of supporters a vote and let them truly participate. You never know, they could make poverty history.

- Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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