A new report released today by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector raises concerns that the independence of charities and their ability to campaign against government policy is being threatened. This has been picked up in a number of articles and blogs (e.g. here and here), and even made it onto the Today Programme this morning. As someone who works for a charity and spends a large part of my time scrutinising government policy- and occasionally campaigning quite loudly against it (as with the Give it Back George tax cap row last year)- this is obviously a topic quite close to my heart. (I have even done a previous blog about the vital role charities can play through lobbying).
It is interesting that this report identifies the problem as being that charities sometimes do not feel able to campaign because of the pressure put on them by Government or Local Authorities when they have service delivery contracts. This contrasts with the claims put forward in the “Sock Puppets” report released by the Institute for Economic Affairs last year, which claimed that the real problem was “fake” charities that receive money from the Government in order to campaign in favour of policies the Government wants to introduce (Here’s a link to an article about it – I refuse to link to the report itself).
I know, I know – the “sock puppets” argument is really stupid, and unsurprisingly there was no evidence of the “issue” it highlighted actually happening anywhere, but unfortunately we have to take this absurd view seriously as a threat because the Government seem to have bought into this tosh (as evidence by the recent DCLG guidance to Local Authorities on “50 Ways to Save”).
For my money, I have always thought that the real problem is the danger of charities ability to campaign being compromised. This is what tallies with all the anecdotal evidence I have heard. The report today confirms some of these fears, and it is depressing to read about “gagging clauses” inserted into Work Programme contracts with voluntary sector providers and the like.
Some people seem to draw the conclusion that the root cause of the problem is charities taking government money in the first place, as this somehow inherently undermines their validity or ability to act as charities. I don’t agree with this view. As far as I am concerned, it should be perfectly possible for there to be a mature relationship between the State and charities in which charities are able to deliver services and campaign for change on behalf of their beneficiaries.
The State will select certain charities to deliver public services because they are able to offer the best outcomes and value for money. Those charities will choose to bid for contracts if their interests happen to be aligned with Government priorities in that area and it will further their ability to achieve their charitable objectives if they take on a service delivery contract. However, whilst delivering that contract in order to serve their beneficiaries, those charities may also believe that it would be even better for those beneficiaries in the long term if Government policy were to change. This is a perfectly consistent viewpoint.
Unfortunately, this appears to be quite a naive and utopian view of the situation.
Even where charities do not find themselves openly gagged or coerced by public sector funders, it is all too easy for mission drift to occur. A charity may well find itself chasing available contracts that are dictated by Government priorities rather than focusing on its core mission and only taking on public funding if it is clearly in line with this. It is easy to criticise charities that do this, but in the current environment where demand on services has increased, voluntary donations are down, and public funding is drying up, the temptation to adapt what you are doing to fit the funding available can be great.
It is worth remembering that this problem is not limited to public sector funders: there are plenty of cases in which charities that are reliant on an individual philanthropist or on a grant-making body have found themselves facing similar pressures. The challenge is always the balance of power between funder and recipient: for a small charity that relies for the majority of its funding on a single individual, the wishes of that individual will obviously have an major influence on the work of the charity and it may be hard to push back if the donor’s wishes are forcing the charity to drift from its mission.
Similarly, for charities that rely heavily on service delivery contracts because that is where the majority of funding in their area of work comes from, the balance of power clearly tips towards the commissioner. If that commissioner starts to make unreasonable demands of the charity, it may be hard for the charity to speak out or to decide to terminate the contractual relationship if they know that they would struggle to raise money from other sources, and that their beneficiaries would suffer as a consequence.
I should add as a footnote that CAF doesn’t actually receive any Government funding, so this issue does not necessarily affect us directly. (Not that this is a value judgment: it just so happens that we don’t take any government money for what we do, whereas for many charities it is a perfectly valid choice to make to advance their charitable aims). We are, however, concerned about the broader environment in which charities have to operate and believe that charities should be able to get funding from a wide range of sources (including the public sector) without fear of this compromising their independence or ability to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries.
We also know from our own experience that campaigning is a vital tool in the armoury of charities, and that charities play a hugely important role in society in speaking up for the most marginalised sections of society. Apart from democratic elections and a free press, the presence of a strong, independent voluntary sector that is able to campaign freely is one of the vital mechanisms for holding those in power to account.