Government-funded charities risk volunteers being 'taken as cheap civil servants’

27 Nov 2019 News

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal

Chatham House

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal has warned that charities which receive too much money from government sources risk their ability to be truly independent. 

Princess Anne was delivering NCVO’s annual Hinton lecture last night. During the address she also raised concerns about larger organisations undercutting specialist charities for local authority contracts and legal constraints on young people volunteering. 

The lecture is organised by NCVO in memory of its former director, Nicholas Hinton. He was also director general of Save the Children, which the princess was president of between 1970 and 2016 and for which she is currently a patron. 

She said being independent was “quite a difficult thing to define”, but that “In Save the Children’s case, if we have enough money to fund an emergency response when it happens without having to ask somebody else then we are independent.”

Later she said that one of her fears is that “those who have to accept too much government grant line of funding are in danger of your volunteers being taken as cheap civil servants. “ 

This is because “You have to keep going back to that source and they will tell you how they want it done.” 

“I hope it only affects relatively few organisations but I think it’s a danger,” she said, adding: “Independence has to be key to ability for your volunteers to truly make a difference and respond to local needs.”  

Local authority contracts 

The princess was also involved in setting up the Carers Trust, and raised concerns about organisations undercutting specialist charities to deliver local authority contracts. 

She said the original intention behind contracts was so that everyone “understood what the relationship was going to be”. But undercutting has become an issue for the Carers Trust. 

“[The contract is] put out to tender by the local authority and taken on by an organisation that is very good at writing the contract but does not understand the subject and has never done it,” she said. “Whatever value you are getting out of that, it is not going to be one that makes a difference to carers.

“I am sorry to say that I think that is completely reprehensible.”

Young volunteers 

She also said it should be easier for young people to volunteer. “St John cadets used to be able to volunteer in hospitals but that’s not allowed now.” This is a shame, she said, because “as soon as young people get to the point of learning something they want to pass it on”. 

She added if they are able to volunteer when they are younger they will be more likely to continue to do so. 

“Once people start to volunteer they like to continue. It might not necessarily be for the same place or the same subject,” she said. 

She said there were natural gaps where people are less able to volunteer, but encouraged charities to think of ways that they could make opportunities accessible. 

Elsewhere, she cautioned against “condemning sections of our communities by statistics”, saying, for example, that if you’re there to help it is wrong to describe somewhere as the “tenth worst place”. 

The princess also warned against too many charities being set up without checking if something already exists. 

 “I rather wish they had looked around first,” she said. “Do they realise how much lawyers and accountants are going to cost them? Maybe it would be better if they share with somebody who has already got that under control.” 

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