A couple of weeks ago Oliver Dowden as the then culture secretary, felt it helpful to publicly declare that the new chair of the Charity Commission must “stop charities ‘hunting for divisions’” and instead “focus on their central purpose”.
Of course, as the minister responsible for appointing the new chair he was better placed than anyone to provide such guidance and monitor how it was implemented, but writing it in the Telegraph his purpose was clearly to reassure the Tory faithful that he was on the anti-woke case.
Despite this declaration, Mr Dowden is now the ex-culture secretary; presumably seen as being too woke, based on the record of his replacement Nadine Dorries. Maybe the fact that the Commission had exonerated The National Trust, Barnardo’s and The Runnymede Trust from wrongdoing after complaints about each by Conservative MPs was held against him by the prime minister.
Looking beyond the headline I was more interested by his assertion that charities “rather than developing a reliance on government grants in the years to come, they should refocus their efforts on public giving”.
This brought to mind two main things. The first was to wonder who these charities are?
Throughout the pandemic a number of charities have utilised the government’s furlough scheme, but by definition that is used to pay employees not to deliver services – I think most charities recognise that is not what they exist for!
It’s true that a number have benefited from part of the £750m distributed by the government (and indeed some do not know what to do now that the funds have expired) plus some have also received Restart Grants via their local authorities. However, most have had to react swiftly to changing events, work with non-government funders, take difficult decisions about reductions to costs and services and raise funds through whatever means they could within the various restrictions.
Several smaller charities that I’ve been involved with launched Covid-19 appeals to great success. They have followed Dowden’s advice, and in some cases achieved significantly income growth.
Unfortunately, despite the generosity of donors and funders, these appeals were usually dwarfed by the exponential increase in need – a fact of which Dowden seems completely oblivious.
High increase in demand
This brings me onto the second point – is it too much to ask government ministers to reflect on why many charities are seeking funds to respond to such high increases in the demand for their services and what its role is in that, rather than playing to the (actually rather small) audience comprised of their hardcore voters?
The situation is exemplified by the Trussell Trust which has become one of the most well-known charities in the UK, but did not exist 25 years ago.
It was founded in 1997 to help children living rough in Bulgaria, but in 2000 the founder responded to a mother that couldn’t afford to feed her children in Salisbury by starting a foodbank in his garden shed.
Now, 21 years later it facilitates over 1,200 foodbanks in the UK, with the strapline “Stop UK Hunger” and has benefited from the footballer Marcus Rashford’s bravery in speaking out about his own lived experience of food poverty.
Between 1987 and 2017 the UK’s median income as a percentage of GDP declined by 10% whilst GDP itself increased by 60% - this is part of the statistical proof that the rich have been getting richer whilst the poor get poorer.
As far as we can tell, Covid-19 has widened that gap further and that’s before the £20 per week uplift in Universal Credit is removed, higher National Insurance payments are levied and the furlough scheme is finally ended.
I don’t have space here to even start to consider the situation in lower resource countries, where many of our beneficiaries face even more severe challenges. Despite the challenges and not ignoring that there are some poorly performing organisations, all of us in the UK charity sector should be proud of the work being done and lives being improved, or in many cases actually made bearable.
However, I’m sure I’m not the only one wishing that maybe the country’s leaders could focus on spreading its considerable wealth and resources more equitably so that the Trussell Trust and others could announce that projects were closing due to lack of need, rather than vice versa.
Now that really would be something to celebrate!
Nick Moore is treasurer of Medic Assist International and a freelance consultant to charities and social enterprises