John Tizard: What role, if any, should charities play in respect of public services?

10 Sep 2019 Voices

John Tizard looks at what charities are best placed to do when it comes to delivering public services.

I am frequently asked or find myself in discussion about the role that charities should play in respect of the public sector, given that (in theory at least), we are meant to have and certainly aspire to a comprehensive welfare state and publicly funded services.

The reality is, of course, that the welfare state is not as comprehensive as it should be and our public services are seriously underfunded and unable to meet basic needs. Inevitably, therefore, the conversation often evolves into what should the response of charities be to austerity and the consequent underfunding of critical services.

When it comes to ‘doing’, historically, charities have a proud record of: developing and delivering public services; stepping in to meet needs that otherwise would go unmet; and working with the public sector, either as partners or through contractual arrangements, to deliver services using charitable incomes with no public sector support.  And even today, the reality is that most services delivered by charities are not funded (either in part or wholly) by the public sector. Rather, they rely on charitable funding and volunteers.

This history of addressing the needs of communities and individuals long before the modern welfare state and public sector services were introduced is to be much celebrated – although I fear it has in large part been forgotten.  

And then there is the fact that many charities also have a long and proud record of campaigning for social, environmental and economic change (including legislative change), and advocating for both individuals and communities.

And finally, there are some charities which do both - providing services, whilst at the same time campaigning for policy changes that would eliminate the need for these same services; and indeed many charities have and many still wish to bring about those changes that would end the need for them to exist in the first place.

Mixed context

This mixed context remains very much the case today. For example, charities have stepped in to set up and operate food banks but at the same time draw on the evidence that they gain from delivering the services in order to lobby government and to address and speak out about the causes of poverty, especially food poverty.

My personal perspective is that charities should be making the case for quality public sector provision of public services, adequately funded by progressive taxation. And I am of the view that they should always be campaigning for social justice and equality.  

That said, charities (large and small, local and national) are and must be about far more than just campaigning and advocacy, vital as these are. They are and will always be involved in service delivery, with or without public sector financial support (and let’s remember that most charities receive no public sector funding of any kind).  There will always be a role for charities to provide services to meet specific needs and preferences, and to address issues, which the state cannot and/or (for whatever reason) will not address, and to innovate.  


Clearly, trustees must decide what is right for their individual charities, but in response to the opening question ‘what role/s, if any, should charities play in respect of public services’, and in order to stimulate the debate, my suggestions are:

  • Complement but not substitute for state-provided services or those services which the state should be funding and providing – so do not offer the public sector an excuse for withdrawing services.
  • Advocate for individuals and communities when they are or should be benefiting from public services.
  • Insist on being involved in public sector strategic commissioning and wider policy decision making.  
  • Campaign to change public policy, and for the funding and provision of appropriate public services. 
  • Be open to providing services funded by the public sector through grant aid (or, in some cases contracts) but avoid subsidising the public sector – and certainly doing so involuntarily. 
  • Persuade the public sector to adopt relational partnering and to move away from competitive tendering.
  • Only bid for public sector contracts or agree to partner the public sector when this is consistent with a charity’s mission, values, capability, capacity and financial resources.
  • Use charitable resources to develop and provide services which the state is unwilling (or will ever be able) to deliver, whilst being careful not to end up offering an excuse for the state not fulfilling its duty.  Examples of such services might be support and empowerment of marginalised groups, who may not be inclined to seek support from the state.
  • Develop and introduce innovative services which the state is not currently providing, with the aim of persuading the public sector to replicate and promote these at scale. 
  • Above all, always remain true to mission and values. 

Charities should not be the low-cost option 

Charities should not, in my view, seek to be the default low-cost option. Rather, they should focus on quality and being exemplar employers. 

Charities should ensure decent pay and conditions for staff (and not rely on precarious low paid employment). They should rightly encourage volunteering but not at the expense of paid employment. And ideally, the charity sector and trade unions should work together to address this agenda, with a charter on employee rights with guarantees for trade union rights agreed between them.

I acknowledge that in the current environment, it is not easy for many charities to survive (let alone thrive). However, the response to this should be for charities to up their game and for their local and national representative bodies to champion best practice and campaign for an empathetic government / wider public sector response. Charities never have and never should exist simply to provide subsidies to the public sector or cover for a failing public sector.  They need to be different and secure different outcomes.

John Tizard is an independent strategic advisor and commentator. He is currently a trustee and charity chair and chair of a CIC. 

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