St Paul's protesters remind us of the choices we face

The sector must be careful not to lose its principles when chasing funds, says Peter Gotham of Macintyre Hudson

Peter Gotham
Peter Gotham

Coincidentally, the new not-for-profit team at MacIntyre Hudson has recently moved into offices near St Paul's Cathedral - just as the radical campers have moved in.

As I walk past at various hours of the day and night, I have taken to pondering what is really important, and how the certainties I had as a 20-year-old have become more sophisticated, or maybe simply diluted.

At one level it is easy to say that the protesters' banners convey simple but very mixed messages. But it's also true that their 'back to basics' approach has a lot to be said for it.

Their sense of purpose is something that is a strong benefit in our sector. In the commercial sector, it is a bonus if employees have strong emotional support for the firm, but it's rarely integral to the success of the business. Not so in our sector.

I was at Third Sector's Britain's Most Admired Charities awards in October, and across all the award winners it was clear that a strong sense of mission energised trustees, staff and volunteers. It also enthused individual donors, trusts, statutory funders and even corporate funders. It is amazing what energy, imagination and resilience can be released when there is a clear mission.

It's a problem that's been faced by the church in the presence of the protesters. Some people have fought to have them evicted, but others have said that they should be on the side of the people in the tents. From my position of relative seniority (and age) I have some sympathy for the soul-searching the church is currently going through.

Charities now need to face a not dissimilar set of issues and to decide where they stand before the inexorable march of events takes over.

This is an extremely difficult time for the charity sector, as it faces what could be a set of risks that are as fundamental as those faced under Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s.

For instance, the apparent government support for mutual-based models of service delivery might well mask a core philosophy that could lead to an asset-stripping exercise to make the privatisation of bus services in the 1980s, or even the change in building societies, seem like small beer. Are the people outside St Paul's paranoid, or are the Tories out to sell the family silver?

The problems facing much of the sector at the moment can lead us to 'chase the funds' without considering carefully how coherently the proposed activities link to the charity's roots.

As we consider service-level contracts, where impact is the ultimate criterion, even more loans and the development of social impact bonds, where financial return is key, there is a real risk of losing focus - and probably also losing the energetic edge that can make the sector so very different from commercial competitors.

If, to the outside world, or even to our own people, we become indistinguishable from the commercial sector, we could find ourselves like the authorities at St Pauls - embarrassed and a bit lost.

Peter Gotham is a principal at MacIntyre Hudson

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