Against the odds

Guest blog by Radojka Miljevic, Partner at Campbell Tickell

At a time when the state is shrinking and withdrawing from service provision, a vacuum – a chasm sometimes – is left for those who are vulnerable, voiceless or simply outside the conventional mainstream. Arguably, no democracy can be properly sustained without the existence of an active civil society holding it to account, acting as a conduit between public and policy interests, and forcing government to engage with inequality of every kind. Charities have an important role to play in this space as protectors of the public good, but need more support if they are to survive and deliver it.

The House of Lords cross-party committee’s report on charities, Stronger charities for a stronger society, is therefore a welcome warm arm around the shoulder of the sector at a time when the vogue publicly has been to focus on failures and reputational challenges. Against a background where tumultuous change is ‘likely to become the norm’ (less ‘strong and stable’, more ‘how we can support you to be strong when all around you is unstable’) there is encouragement to charities to demonstrate more collective confidence in how well they perform. This report reminds us that charities, and the Trustees stewarding them, are doing work of real value. And they do this with some steadfastness against unenviable odds in terms of the challenges of the operating environment.

From my own experience of trusteeship of a very small charity no longer receiving funds from the local authority, a range of factors combine to take their toll on everyone’s enthusiasm and energies: the realities of larger contract commissioning, the focus of grant conditions on project specific activities rather than covering core costs, and the ongoing treadmill of fundraising and bid writing by both Trustees and staff simply to stay afloat. Importantly, the report asks that public sector commissioners behave reasonably and scope core costs into their contracts, that Government supports the development of consortia for bidding purposes and that contracts protect smaller charities from exploitation by larger contracting ones.

In line with trends in other sectors, the report highlights the need for governance to improve in the charity sector. The already fertile ground in which to plant the new Code of Charity Governance when finalised is further readied by the report’s support – together with the Charity Commission’s – for recognising the Code as the benchmark for governance in the sector. It’s perhaps a reflection of where the sector currently is that the need for induction, trustee skills and learning, and board diversity and renewal – as well as transparency – needs to be spelled out in a report like this.

One criticism is that the thorny issue of whether trustees should be paid receives rather cursory attention and doesn’t seem fully to examine the arguments for and against. The role of the ‘volunteer’ trustee would merit some exploration when it’s sometimes used as a defence for what doesn’t get done or considered. But perhaps we need to balance the report’s light treatment of this area with the championing of volunteerism elsewhere: of interest and innovation is the proposed initiative to encourage employers to recognise the value of trusteeship in the personal development of their staff and for Government to consult on a statutory duty to facilitate that mechanism.

The prospect of mergers is considered as a reasonable strategic response to duplication and increasing impact, though some of the evidence highlights that many appear to arise from financial distress and that charities are having to use their reserves to sustain services.

While the report is a hugely welcome attempt to support, stretch and challenge charities, it is also a portrait of how our world is changing – fewer grants, big contracts, smaller charities used as ‘bid candy’ by lead providers and payment by results. The ‘big society’ was in some ways a laudable aspiration, but this report serves to remind us how increasingly removed we are from it.

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