Can charities heal the divisions in society?

That was the question put to an audience and panel this morning at an event hosted in central London by New Philanthropy Capital.


I think it’s fair to say we didn’t get anywhere close to coming up with a definitive answer; instead we spent over an hour and a half skirting around a plethora of issues, many of which get talked to death across our sector – funding, governance, collaboration – all important points, but not necessarily helping us to answer the question at hand.


So let’s look at the issue: can charities heal the divisions in society?


Firstly, I think we have to ask whether that is the right question to ask. I put to the panel that perhaps the question should be ‘should charities heal the divisions of society,’ after all – in an increasingly difficult funding environment and faced with a greater need for our services do we have the capacity to pursue an agenda focused on community cohesion?


To be a charity in the UK as per current legislation you should be an institution established for charitable purpose. Those charitable purposes must fall under one of thirteen categories as laid out in the Charities Act 2011. Whilst one could argue that many of those purposes (prevention of poverty, advancement of health etc.) play their own role in healing divisions of society, there is only one explicit category which alludes to the advancement of community development.


According to the Charity Commission there are 2,261 registered charities in the UK which listed their purpose as economic/community development/employment – that’s out of a total of about 160,000 registered organisations. So back to the question – for these charities it might be correct to consider that healing divisions within society falls within their charitable purpose, but what about the rest of us? For those of us who are charged with advancing religion, saving lives or advancing arts or culture surely there is a strong argument to say it is beyond our responsibility to heal the rifts within communities?


But here’s the catch, and it was the answer put forward by the panel: if the charity sector doesn’t do it, who will?


The panellists were at pains to say it wasn’t about can or should, the fact of the matter was that we were already doing it everyday, and the charity sector they implied, had an obligation to try and “change the world.”


I don’t believe that to be an acceptable answer, and I appreciate that some members of the panel felt that the above rationale was both unsatisfactory and unsustainable. Charities have a role to play in tackling root causes and structural inequalities which will in turn, one hopes, help to heal some of the divisions in society. But tackling the deep rooted divisions in our communities, or ‘changing the world’ cannot and should not be our main focus – it will divert us from our individual missions and disable our effectiveness in our own arenas.


Of course this conversation comes on the heels of this summer’s European Union referendum and it was a case of Brexit bingo in the room, the word being mentioned every other minute. Yet unfortunately the conversation never got close enough to debating what the role of a charity should be in a post-Brexit Britain.


CAF’s recent report ‘A Stronger Britain’ sets out in detail how people feel about life post referendum, and the role that they think charities might play in a much more divided society.


Overwhelmingly people said that charities make a valuable contribution to their local community, and in times of political and economic uncertainly they would trust charities more than any one else to stand up for them, including government and local authorities. That doesn’t mean as a sector we should seek to replace these institutions, rather we should strengthen our resolve about the important role we play in a functioning and thriving democratic society.


The report sets out some recommendations about how charities can play a positive role in tackling issues within our divided society – and I believe today’s discussion would have benefited from hearing them. There are practical and pragmatic steps we can take as a sector to play a more effective role in healing divisions across the nations. They do not involve us tossing aside our missions in the pursuit of something greater, but they do call upon each charity to put their beneficiaries first and use our unique position to help shape the community around us. That will be how we begin to repair our society, anything else just won’t work.

Kim Roberts, Senior Campaigns Officer, Charities Aid Foundation

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