Public expectation weighs heavily on charities. They are rightly seen as forces for good, helping the vulnerable, tackling social problems, and helping to meet gaps in public services. What’s more, they do this against a backdrop of funding pressure and an increasingly complicated regulatory climate.
But this level of expectation must make it difficult for charities to modernise, innovate and campaign.
I say this because the expectation also extends to how charities should operate. The accepted public view is that funding directed at beneficiaries should be maximised. But it follows, surely, that this must come at the inevitable cost of staff salaries, professional development, digital technology and other vital aspects of running an effective organisation.
Now I know that money spent on, for example, employing skilled staff or training volunteers, is a necessary part of supporting beneficiaries. But the public expectation that charity income should be spent directly on the beneficiaries themselves means a reality of low wages for some charity staff (only 0.4% of UK charities are accredited Living Wage employers). What’s more, funding bodies underline such expectations, with many trusts and foundations excluding core funding, or funding directly for staff salaries.
But if the sector cannot pay for an essential resource such as people, then the public will hardly accept their donations being spent on political activity. Another apparent presumption is that charities should not get involved in politics (effectively made official with the Lobbying Act). Yet organisations that help a particular cause need a voice to raise issues and argue against poor policy decisions. More than any other, the sector is well-placed to speak up for its beneficiaries. Yes, the Lobbying Act has made this more difficult, but as former ACEVO CEO, Asheem Singh says, “Political activism is not beyond the charitable remit; it is part of our reason for being.”
So can we do more to challenge public expectation? Are we making a good enough case for core funding? Should we advocate more loudly for beneficiaries, and inform and where necessary call-out the policymakers? Put another way, does the sector need to raise public awareness and understanding on what it takes to make a difference?
It shouldn’t be a difficult ask. Whether this involves being more clear and transparent, stronger campaigns, or educating the policymakers, the means to carry such messages already exists. We have NCVO, NAVCA, Social Enterprise UK, ACEVO and others, but together, perhaps they can achieve more. An inclusive, vocal and united third sector would be credible and formidable; and with Brexit approaching, help ensure there is no race to the bottom.
Indeed, a broader and more informed dialogue on charities’ role in civil society is surely needed, otherwise the weight of public opinion could become stifling.