Over the weekend, the Lords Select Committee on Charities published its final report, following a year’s activity looking into the current state of the charity sector in the UK, and how it can be improved.
The Committee’s recommendations – 42 in total – span the breadth of the entire sector, and there is much in the report that merits praise. Particularly welcome are proposals to generate greater trust in charity governance, break down barriers preventing smaller charities from delivering public services, and to diversify and train trustee boards to ensure that trustees are more representative of society and better equipped to deal with the challenges that they face.
It is also pleasing to see that the Committee explicitly recognises and supports the vital role that charity advocacy plays in a vibrant civil society, and encourages the adoption of Lord Hodgson’s report on the impact of the Lobbying Act in full. The Committee also warns that the Government’s interest in social impact bonds should not be to the detriment of innovation elsewhere, and –in the week that the Prime Minister is set to trigger Article 50 – raises concerns about the potential impact Brexit could have on the sector.
And in the year that sees the 30th anniversary of the introduction of payroll giving, it is pleasing to see the Committee calling for businesses and government to work together to encourage greater participation. This, combined with encouraging companies to give employees time off for charitable activity – something that was in the Conservative Party’s manifesto at the election – could do a great deal to ensure that Britain’s businesses continue to make an important social commitment.
However, as welcome as this report is, the challenges that charities face go far beyond the scope of the Committee’s remit. It’s important that policymakers are able to explore the impact that technological, political and social transformations are having on the wider world and what that means for charities. That means not just taking stock of where charities are now, but providing an ambitious vision of the role that charities can play in the future, putting in place the structures and policies now needed to unleash the potential of Britain’s civil society.
Technologically, many charities have struggled to keep pace with the rapid changes in the digital world. Whilst charities have increased their digital presence and engagement, they have not yet begun to explore the full scope of the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and virtual reality; which are going to shape all our lives in the near future and may transform the relationship between people and causes.
Socially, the growing interconnectivity of the world is also changing the role of charities in society. People are giving to charities in different ways and via different methods, and charities have a real challenge to insert themselves into the consciousness of younger audiences in particular to ensure that there is an understanding of their role in generating change and that they can be part of the big conversations about social good.
And politically, there is no doubt that there is an integral role for charities to play in helping to deliver the Prime Minister’s ‘Shared Society,’ a concept that currently remains low on content. The growing focus on devolution and cities offers potential for further exploration include how to reinvigorate civic identity and a sense of place by resurrecting the role that philanthropy played in developing many of Britain’s great cities. Further afield, conversations about Britain’s place in the world must include the role that our thriving network of international charities can play in developing and delivering soft power.
In short, the work of the Committee and their report is to be praised, and their recommendations – if acted on – would help to further develop trust in charities. We await the Government’s response with interest, confident that they will engage constructively on ideas that have cross-party support from such a well-informed and respected panel.
However, at a time of such global turbulence and changes across society, charities cannot afford to retreat to the safety of ‘charity issues.’ Rather than being left on the side-lines, charities need to be at the heart of conversations, understanding and embracing the broad changes taking place, and recognising their potential and the ways in which they can help deliver on them. At CAF, we’ll be aiming to take a lead on those issues, acting now to place charities ahead of the curve and invaluable to the future of society.