Making the case for an independent charity sector

Hot on the heels of the House of Lords Select Committee report is the latest in a series of reports on independence in the voluntary sector by Civil Exchange – ‘A Shared Society?’

After the excitement of the House of Lords Committee on charities last month (and don’t forget to keep an eye out for our analysis of this in the coming weeks), you could be forgiven for thinking that the launch of this report on the independence of the voluntary sector would be somewhat overshadowed. But any considered analysis of the sector is deserving of our attention.

There is, of course, overlap between the subjects covered in the two pieces. They both discuss grant funding, advocacy, devolution, public service delivery and the Compact. In the areas of overlap, the conclusions reached are in places similar, from the need to reinforce the Compact to the threat of ‘mission drift’ being created by the shift to government contracts.

However, the report from Civil Exchange, as you would expect, had a much narrower focus – on the importance of independence in the sector. The report argues that the ability and drive to do what is right by their beneficiaries is what makes charities unique, and this is something we need to protect. The distinctiveness of the sector is central to garnering support for charities – be it financial or otherwise – and Caroline Slocock, the report’s author, asserts that the challenges identified by ‘A Shared Society?’ threaten to undermine this.

If you wanted to level a criticism at the Civil Exchange report, it would be that it doesn’t recommend actions for civil society or empower charities to see themselves as key drivers in determining what should come next. There are recommendations for the government and the prime minister which are welcome. But it isn’t enough for charities to simply wait on politicians to realise our value. Instead, we need to organise, and start making our value undeniably clear.

Something that particularly resonated with me was the role national media has played in eroding charity’s independence. Scrutiny is neither unwelcome nor avoidable, but that doesn’t mean that all stories about charities are justified, or accurate (the report cites examples of charities that have challenged articles and won apologies). If you’ve been following the news this week, you’ll have noticed that the prime minister has castigated a charity – the National Trust – for disowning the word ‘Easter’. Ignoring for the moment the fact that those involved strongly deny the allegations, it follows a two week period late last year in which the Times ran nine negative articles on the National Trust in just two weeks.

There can be no doubt, looking at this, that the era of special treatment for charities (if ever such a thing existed) in the press is now over. If the sector wants to get our message out there, we need to come together and organise. This is why ACEVO and the NCVO have established a working group to address trust and confidence in charity. It’s why ACEVO, partnered with CharityComms, CAF and the IoF, to coordinate Charity Today across the BBC and social media in early February.

‘A Shared Society?’ identifies a loss of independence – be it real of perceived – as a threat to charities. Be it silence on poor government policy, or allowing government contracts to dictate activity, Slocock argues that it presents a danger that, in extreme cases, charities could end up looking like nothing more than an arm of the state. This matters because charities depend on their good name to both raise funds and ensure the trust of their beneficiaries.

Most charities are answerable only to their beneficiaries, donors and trustees. So long as they have the support of these they will remain independent. Others also answer to larger funders or even the government. To ensure that the independence of these, and thus the reputation of the sector, is not impugned, we need to be judicious in speaking out. Charities must be allowed and encouraged to campaign when they encounter policy or practice which harms their charitable aims. Our voice is a central part of our identity, and we need to be proud of it. For us at ACEVO, this means not being afraid to advocate for charity leaders and ensuring they have the confidence and freedom to speak out. This will be one of our key policy priorities going forwards, so let us know if you have anything to say on the matter or if you would like us to promote your campaign work, and stay tuned for further developments.

By Simon Dixon, Policy Officer

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