Charities’ voices have become "dulled" and the sector "became the establishment" through its pursuit of contracts to deliver statutory services, according to Ian Theodoreson, chair of the Charity Finance Group.
Theodoreson, who is stepping down as chair of the CFG later this year, told the umbrella body’s annual conference today that much of the charity sector’s ability to "speak truth unto power" had been lost, which he said began when charities started to chase contracts from statutory bodies and councils.
"The mantra was that charities were well placed to share their expertise and could be more cost-effective than statutory bodies," he said. "They could also use their voluntary funds to provide that added value for beneficiaries that statutory agencies were not able to provide.
"But to be honest, I think we were conning ourselves. What we hadn't reckoned with was the price that would be demanded of us for that increased activity.
"Increasingly charities were being squeezed into a sausage-machine production line and, bit by bit, lost the freedom to operate as they saw best, especially as funding cuts started to bite. In particular, the voices of beneficiaries became lost in the face of the louder voices of those who pay the bills."
Theodoreson said it would be absurd to say that charities should not take on contracts, and many charities had done remarkable work in delivering statutory services, but he was concerned that contracts of this kind "have actually dulled our voice" and meant the sector had "lost our distinct message".
He said: "We no longer stand out as a sector that challenges the status quo, and the public is consequently less clear about what we stand for, which should be a cause of concern for everyone who cares about the charity sector."
Theodoreson said that when the CFG was established 30 years ago the charity sector was a "wild west" with a relative lack of professionalism.
That had now changed, he said, but the campaigning zeal of the 1980s and 1990s had been lost and the sector was now seen as a part of the establishment.
Theodoreson said: "There was a conviction that we could change the world for good; there was a confidence and boldness in the way we went about our tasks. We were not afraid to challenge the status quo and ‘speak truth unto power’. Charities were generally seen as a force for good and a voice to challenge the establishment.
"If you roll on 30 years, so much of this has been lost. Somewhere along the road we stopped being the voice that challenged the establishment and instead we became the establishment."
Theodoreson also announced that Nicki Deeson, international finance director of Amnesty International and deputy chair of the CFG, would take over as chair when he stands down in September.
An interview with Theodoreson is available in the latest issue of Third Sector.