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28 August 2010

Charity Begins at Home

Tag(s): Sustainability, Philanthropy

For the past year or so I have been acting as an unpaid adviser to a leading music charity. It demonstrates the transformational effect of music in thousands of performances for vulnerable people old and young. In the process it gives valuable performance experience to young musicians many of whom go on to play in our leading orchestras or even enjoy high profile solo careers. I came by this gig though Market Aid, an offshoot of the Marketing Society which offers the services of leading Marketers to charities on a pro bono basis. I had previously advised a leading medical research charity and helped its CEO reposition its work to help children with their illness and then I worked with the CEO of a leading sports charity that uses cricket as a way of helping disaffected youth from inner cities.


I am well aware that many people like me do similar work and some do much more. But in the process of working with the charities I have also gained some insights that give me a view on the possible impact of David Cameron’s Big Society.


1.      Firstly, the charity market in the UK is very crowded. There are 160,927 main charities plus 21,093 subsidiary, group & constituent charities making a total of 182,020 charities registered in the UK. Collectively they control investments of £77.5bn and generate income of £52.6bn of which they spend £49.6bn. In the commercial world such dynamics would certainly lead to consolidation which would be accelerated in the current climate of public sector budget cuts and squeezes on private spending. There are already claims coming from some charities of a loss of income but very little evidence of the necessary consolidation that should follow this. While much of the effort is voluntary this is not without cost and some charities are reported to have Byzantine governance structures which slow decision making and delivery. I am not proposing the privatisation of charity but rather its commercialisation at least in following the rules of efficiency that markets demand. I suspect that many charities are quite inefficient and would benefit from rationalisation.


2.      Secondly, there seems a mismatch between efforts in fundraising and actual delivery of charitable services. I receive many requests from friends and relatives to “sponsor” some worthy effort in support of some equally worth charity. I am of course in admiration of the individuals who give selflessly of their time to raise substantial funds. But most of the efforts are in fact nothing to do with the charity itself. People run marathons and climb mountains, but rarely in my experience do they actually ask for sponsorship to perform some useful task like decorating an old people’s home or cleaning up a canal. Of course other volunteers do such tasks but without sponsorship. Why not bring the two activities together and seek paid sponsorship for useful outcomes?


3.      Thirdly, there is a move to increase philanthropy in the UK and follow the excellent example of the US. I am sceptical about how successful this will be without some fundamental shifts in attitude. A study of twelve major countries carried out by the Charities Aid Foundation in 2006 found that the British were already very generous and were second only to the citizens of the USA in the proportion of their wealth given to charity. In the US there is a much more generous tax regime. I remember when I lived there in the 1980’s I was able to donate old magazines and other useless goods to the Salvation Army who would give me a receipt on which I could state my own estimate of value which was then deductible from my IRS return. I doubt whether that would be acceptable to George Osborne.


The Big Society is a concept that seeks to marshal all of this energy and philanthropy in getting people to solve their own problems locally rather than relying on Central Government to do so. After 13 years of new Labour the Central Government in the UK is the most centralised of any large economy as well as the most indebted. Some might think that the Big Society is an attempt to distance Cameron’s Conservatives away from Mrs. Thatcher’s statement that “there’s no such thing as society”. But let’s go back to what she actually said:


For the record what Mrs Thatcher said in an interview for Woman’s Own magazine in 1987 was as follows:

“ I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—" It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it.” That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: "All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!" but when people come and say:  “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!" You say: "Look! It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!"

There is also something else I should say to them: "If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit."

But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

Can't see what's wrong with that.



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