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Cuts may prove to be a vital wake-up call to charities

Cuts may prove to be a vital wake-up call to charities
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Cuts may prove to be a vital wake-up call to charities3

Finance | Andy Williamson | 19 Jul 2010

Andy Williamson explores why the forthcoming cuts should be welcomed by the sector.

It is difficult to escape the two words “government cuts” whenever reading any newspaper or watching and listening to the broadcast media. Almost everyone is going to express an opinion for reasons of politics or vested interest; and in the midst of such a heated maelstrom, most facts and reasoned argument will disappear.

It is an inescapable truth that government must reduce its excessive spending; all parties are agreed on that fact. It serves no further purpose to talk about who is to blame, listen to the public sector and it is all the “greedy bankers” yet listen to the private sector and it is years of excessive public sector spending on “non-jobs”.

The reality of course, is that it is a bit of both with a few more things aside. What now needs to happen is to disregard that debate and concentrate on creating a better Britain. Civil society, voluntary and not-for-profit organisations can and should be a vital part of that recovery.

However the voluntary sector is not immune to the pressures facing the public sector and in many cases, far too many in truth, they are inextricably linked. This is why the cuts can actually prove to be a good thing in the long term.

First of all society probably needs to define “a charity” better. Is a charity that is wholly reliant on state funding anything but another branch of the public sector in reality? Is one that is part-funded or majority-funded by the state providing a value-for-money service meeting needs that otherwise could not be met? Perhaps the majority of UK citizens view a charity as part of Mr Cameron’s 'Big Society' providing something that is either needed or desirable that is not funded in any way by the state.

Much like the public sector, the voluntary sector has exploded with a growth over the last ten years with seemingly endless funds available via national or local authorities yet the question of whether such services are needed or even desired is often ignored.

There is no god-given right to exist as a charity simply because you can

We have now reached a situation, for the first time in 15 years, where authorities are having to ask such questions and start to question how funds are spent.  The voluntary sector doesn’t like it and is already resorting to the left-wing shock tactics of “people are suffering”, “vital services will be lost” etc…without putting any solid arguments in place to justify such statements.

Reform is badly needed. Charities should be examined much more closely than happens at present and should only exist if the criteria of needed or desirable services are delivered in a cost-effective manner; and such services are measured by impact and outcomes rather than on subjective opinion.

I know of numerous charities that raise funds but deliver very poor services; some are positively hostile to the idea of fundraising to meet their financial needs and adopt the view that “we should be funded”.

No-one has an automatic right to funding and I would argue that if a charity or not-for-profit organisation can clearly demonstrate a need or societal desire for their services then they can attract voluntary funding simply by getting proper fundraisers in place and being more savvy about key messages.

People will support a good cause; that has been proved for many years, but what they don’t readily accept any more is a simple platitude or expectation of supporting such.

Charities must clearly demonstrate their worth and their impact with meaningful services, not just to the donating public, but to government, local authorities and regulatory bodies. It is too easy to arrogantly bat away concerns as “interference” or “lack of appreciation/understanding”.

There is no god-given right to exist as a charity simply because you can. That is why the government cuts could prove to be the vital wake-up call that has long been needed in the voluntary sector. Some services may well disappear but that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. The good ones will survive and thrive and that is what is more important.

Andy Williamson is chief executive of the Warwickshire Northamptonshire Air Ambulance

Helena Holt
2 Aug 2010

Having worked in this sector for more than 20 years I've seen more funding models than you can shake a stick at and both excellent and abysmal practice at all stages on the statutory/voluntary income spectrum.

One other inescapable truth is that the causes which are least appealing will also be amongst the easiest to cut, regardless of how good the service provision is. Big society may well prove effective in areas with plenty of social capital and relatively simple social needs. But in some of the areas I've worked in in the past and with some of the people I worked with and for, there will be very few people both willing and able to step into the breach with community led independently funded initiatives. The cost of withdrawing funding from these people and areas will be met by all of us in the long run of course, in increased demands on health and prison services.

I am wholeheartedly grateful for the amazing support the charity I currently lead receives from the people and businesses of Devon. I am very glad we are in a position to be completely independent of government funding but I am acutely aware that this is only because it is a popular cause with almost universal appeal.

A small part of me is very relieved that I am no longer trying to raise funds for community care services for chaotic and challenging people with mental health, drug and alcohol problems in Inner London. I can honestly say that the charities I've previously led have been much more rigorously monitored and evaluated because of the statutory funding they received. I try to apply the same level of accountability wherever I am but surprisingly there are relatively few people who ask searching questions of charities like ours.

Jay Kennedy
Head of Policy
Directory of Social Change
21 Jul 2010

Individual citizens DO have a right to set up and support charities. It is the right of individuals in a free society to associate with each other - and doing this using legal forms such as charity is one very well-established way of doing so in the UK. But you are right to say that nobody is entitled to any funding, especially from the state.

However, arguing that charities should only exist if they can demonstrate maximum cost-effiency and measured quantifiable impact is nonsense. We're not the public sector. The vast majority of charities don't get any public sector money - or any money at all actually. This agenda of trying to rationalise civil society will simply end up stifling it.

Ed Tait
20 Jul 2010

You seem to be insinuating that only statutory funded charities run second rate services - where is your evidence for this?

If anything, it’s more likely to be the exact opposite.

The sort of scrutiny a charity receives from statutory funders is far more detailed and sophisticated than that received by individual donors. And it is very often the smaller, local and unfashionable charities that receive mostly statutory funding.

Take Refugee and Migrant Justice as an example; they recently folded as statutory payments were changed to paid-by-results (‘results’ in this field take years, whilst the charity is taking on cost all the time). It was nothing to do with the vital service they provided to some of the most vulnerable people in Britain. I'm sure they tried to diversity their funding portfolio, but funnily enough refugees aren't top of the list when it comes to individual giving.

And the result? Thousands of people in desperate need will get no support and be in real danger; that is not just "left-wing shock tactics" but the grim truth.

Yes, the sector will need to reform, and yes, some charities that weren’t particularly good may fold – but they will fold at the same time as many good charities doing vital work.

When millions are out of work, and thousands will be left genuinely destitute, society needs more than ever a well-funded voluntary (and public) sector.

It’s certainly no time to be smug, and it's breathtakingly cruel to crow at the misfortune of those less fortunate.

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