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Charity Matters

Ten years ago I decided to become involved with charities, and found this sector both interesting and puzzling. Now, I’m reading and writing about charity history and the role of the third sector (otherwise called non profit sector, civil society, the voluntary and community sector, the charity sector) with the intention of developing my thoughts into a helpful publication. This page will include relevant materials as they are produced.

I’m driven through a decade’s experience that surprisingly little understanding exists about the nature and complexity of the non-profit sector. I used to run a social enterprise that helped business people understand more about the sector and assist their transfer into it, and overcoming misconceptions was an interesting task. Over the past few days I’ve met people, well educated and informed, working in the NHS, who had no idea what the term ‘social enterprise’ means: yet it is Government policy that increasingly health, social care and other public services will be delivered by these bodies. And there are still many outside the sector who do not understand that the voluntary sector is composed not just of volunteers, but also people who have paid work and careers. Again, when talking about the descriptions ‘third sector’ or ‘civil society’, I’ve met blank incomprehension. So a real translation exercise is called for.

Yet people within the charity sector often don’t understand just how little the reality of life for them is understood in the wider world. Too often they communicate with each other in a jargon that may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend.

Government changes do not help inform or clarify this lack of public awareness: the previous Labour Government enthusiastically supported ‘the third sector’, establishing an Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet Office and lumped together the wider voluntary and community sector with the nascent social enterprise movement. The Coalition Government has banished the phrase, replacing it by ‘civil society, ‘civil society organisations’ and a renamed ‘Office for Civil Society’. No wonder the wider public is confused.

Much of this strange sector is bounded by history. Just the other week I spoke with a young man active in the non profit sector who had never heard of the University Settlements movement….although he vaguely knew about Toynbee Hall. Yet this movement, which was so powerful from the latter part of the nineteenth century, was not only a way for differing communities to understand each other better, but was also integral to the growth of philanthropic endeavour and the evidence based learning that led to much of the twentieth century welfare reform. There are a range of different initiatives throughout our history that have led to the complex pattern that comprises today’s non profit sector.

The bounds of welfare and the role of Government versus private philanthropy or mutual self help has been an ongoing debate for a very long time. And the sometimes pernicious effects of charity/Government collaboration is also also not new: the Coram Foundation, founded in 1739 to take care of the many abandoned babies and young children in London, accepted a Government grant of £10,000 in 1756 to support its work. Unfortunately the grant contained conditions that the Hospital accept all applicants under a certain age and also extend its work throughout the country. Coram was unprepared for the flood of applicants and the Coram Governors “emerged from the partnership with the Government poorer, sadder and probably wiser”. (D.Owen; English Philanthropy 1660-1960)

I will question assumptions. Is there really a sector at all – or a disparate collection of entities linked only by history, tax exemptions and trust law? Does the sector have common values? Is it sufficiently aware of ethical issues in how it behaves, for example in staff relations or fundraising? What are the conflicts between a modern managerialist approach (lean, mean, service delivery machines) and the integrity of organisations seeking to fulfil their own mission and values?

My self appointed task, therefore, is to act as a translator between the wider world and the sector, to share some of the historic origins of the disparate collection of organisations that comprise the non profit sector, to question assumptions and generally to encourage a better understanding of a vibrant and irreplaceable part of our national fabric.

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