Charities should get off the mat: report from the Liberal Democrat conference

Brighton Centre, venue for this year's Liberal Democrat conference
Brighton Centre, venue for this year’s Liberal Democrat conference

I normally do a report on my impressions of each party conference as a whole. For this year’s Liberal Democrat conference I refer you to last year’s which still seems pretty current if you squint and pretend the word ‘Brexit’ is in there. Instead, I want to focus on one of the fringes I attended, which was billed as a chance to see how charities can support post-Brexit Britain.

John Low, chief exec of the Charities Aid Foundation, presented a new report with some interesting research and thoughtful proposals. But when the debate was opened out, we were treated to a bunch of clichés, personal anecdote and contradictory wishes. It felt at times as though the charitable sector was being told to reorganise itself for the benefit of commissioning agencies.

We all know the sector is under fire from people who want it to stop advocating on behalf of its beneficiaries, to stop asking difficult questions on one hand, but on the other to pick up the pieces after governments’ (of all colours) mistakes, or who are interested in self-publicity. Some good work is being done to shout about the sector’s achievements, but it can be hard because the sector itself is quite messy, with a mixture between big and small charities, national and local organisations and a split between charities’ two tribes. That messiness is necessary because the needs of charities’ beneficiaries are messy. It is a strength of the sector – although it is also a weakness because it makes it harder to bang the drum accordingly.

I don’t want to be critical of the event itself. It was well chaired and there were some excellent and thoughtful points from the panel and from the floor. But it was for me an eye-opener that the sector is still so ill-understood.

Here is my own personal take on some of the issues raised at the fringe. I’d be interested to know where you agree – and disagree. It’s time to move beyond the current, stale debate. And it’s time for charities to get off the mat.

Charities should work together

Well, yes they should, where it makes sense for their beneficiaries. But there is a limit. It’s fair, for example, for cardiac arrest charities to agree on what constitutes the chain of survival. But it would be wrong for a general consortium of charities to decide that, for example, lung cancer is less an issue than homelessness. It’s up to those charities to shout on behalf of the people whom they serve. Deciding who should have priority is what we (rightly) pay politicians for.

There are too many charities

Really? What’s the right number: who decides and by what criteria? Charities come and go. It should always be a charity’s purpose to put itself out of business – to end the need it was set up to alleviate. But it’s great that new people come forward with new ideas and keep established charities on their toes. Sometimes it’s right for charities to merge or close, or reinvent themselves. But it would be terrible if we stamped down the ability of people to quickly come together to meet a need rather than wait for larger, established charities to pick up a problem.

I don’t know where my money goes

Then look it up. Or ask. Charities have to state how they spent their money. The information’s available, if you care to look. If you’re not satisfied, ask for more details.

I don’t like big charities. I only like local ones

Big charities exist because they try to solve big problems, or because smaller often local charities merged (see above). They can be more efficient than small ones if they take advantage of economies of scale. They can provide brilliant support for people on the front line. National charities exist because they seek to solve national problems. Cancer is a problem everywhere.

There have been problems with bad fundraisers

Yes there have. And the sector is stamping them out. There isn’t space in this blog to tackle fundraising as a whole, but a huge amount of work is going on to put things right in the areas where some charities overstepped the mark.

And where there continue to be mistakes, these need to be pointed out, and fixed. There’s no room for complacency on this.

But if we want charities to get real and solve problems then we can’t have them rely on the occasional flag day. They need to plan, and they need to know how much money is likely to come in. Regular standing orders or direct debits mean less fundraising spend and more for the cause which is why charities have gone that way. Cutting corners is bad but so is expensive fundraising. We need a middle way.

Money spent on salaries is not money spent on the cause

The main reason for this remark was a complaint that there were increases in the national minimum wage, so the wages of front line carers were going up. I can’t agree with that at all. If you buy food to distribute, then some of the cost of that food goes on paying people – farmers, distributors and so on. To distinguish between providers in this way seems absurd!

The debate about so-called charity fat cats is a red herring too.

Charities should stop complaining about funding cuts. Don’t they live in the real world?

Yes, charities absolutely live in the real world. That is the point. It is the people whom they serve who are bearing the brunt of those cuts. It is incumbent on charities to speak up for some of the most vulnerable in society, so sorry if it’s inconvenient but #sorrynotsorry.

What do you think?

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