THINKPIECE: Income growth can undermine your real aims

PAUL STREETS, chief executive of Diabetes UK

Charities have lost their way if two-thirds of the largest ones are predominately service providing.

("Is silence the price of public cash", Third Sector, 13 March.)

At Diabetes UK, we are far less interested in growth than we are in influence.

The charity exists to improve the lives of people with diabetes and work towards an end to diabetes. Three years ago, when we examined our strategic options, it was clear that to pursue growth by taking on mainstream service provision would not necessarily improve our ability to achieve our aims.

Of course, service provision has a role. At Diabetes UK, we pilot interesting ideas and provide the things people can't get from the NHS, often while campaigning for the NHS to mainstream them.

And while income growth through service provision may not be linked to success, neither is silence linked to failure. Our most effective campaigning is done quietly behind the scenes, making cogent arguments to government.

In reserve, we can bring out the troops, in our case 185,000 members, but we use them as a last resort. This type of campaigning may be less dramatic but it is often more effective and always much easier. To do this you need both access and freedom to speak. For both you need financial independence from any main source of income, government or corporate.

In the early 90s, I worked in a new industrial and provident society formed to take up services for older people from the public sector. Sadly, after the excitement of the transfer, it seemed to me that the government's motivation for this change was driven more by a wish to reduce costs than any belief in the benefits of the "mixed economy of care", which was the rhetoric of the day. The charity became an employer that squeezed its employees in a manner worthy of the most ruthless private contractor.

Paradoxically, we thus did our bit to create a future generation of low-income employees dependent on the state in old age. We also helped keep prices competitive, which ended up driving some private sector providers out of business, thereby contributing to the bed blocking we now find in the NHS.

Let's abandon the myth that income growth equals success. And let's stop being seduced by government contracts unless backed by proof that that the voluntary sector can do a better job.

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