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Contemporary Charities: The Big Lottery Should Support a Big Debate


The Big Lottery Fund's report and initiative on "The Future of Doing Good" is both timely and challenging.

As the Government and others seek to redefine the role of the State, with an ambition to reduce its role in the delivery of public services and addressing social need, there are (perhaps, overly optimistic?) expectations that charities, volunteers, philanthropists and funds such as the Big Lottery will take over.

This raises some major challenges and some fundamental questions for many charities. Trustees have to consider how they can continue to fulfil their charities' mission and meet the needs of their beneficiaries. Should they be prepared to use their charitable funds to replace tax-funded public expenditure? Can they afford to do so? Does such action compromise a charity and make it, in effect, complicit with a specific Government policy? Is such action in the best interests of beneficiaries? These are never easy questions to answer but surely they are ones that many charities (whether large, small, local or national), are grappling with.

Concurrently, the Government is also preparing to introduce measures to discourage and even restrict charities from campaigning and speaking up for their beneficiaries.

Campaigning, advocacy and the provision of 'voice' on behalf of marginalised people has always been a respected and effective activity for many charities. Given what is happening to the State, social infrastructure and support systems across the country, such activity is arguably needed more today than ever.

And all of these issues are in tune with the question posed by "The Future of Doing Good", when it asks "what is the role of charities today?"

I believe that we need a 'big debate', which the Big Lottery Fund could sponsor and facilitate on this vital subject.

My starting point is that no charity can stand aside when there is need but they must clear on: the terms by which they are engaging; how it impacts on their mission and values; and at what point they need to deploy an exit strategy, and what precisely that entails.

There are some fundamental issues for charities collectively to address based on their:

  • refusing to be substitutes for the state
  • respecting and empowering and never patronising or being paternalistic towards their beneficiaries or others - and embracing beneficiaries in their governance
  • sustaining their values and principles whatever the pressure or duress
  • speaking out on behalf of beneficiaries; and advocating alternative national policies based on collectivism and social justice
  • enabling and encouraging social action and social solidarity to address needs and building strong communities; and influencing governments, businesses and communities to change course and change policies
  • using their charitable funding to foster innovation, promote voice and campaigning and only in extremis, with very clear outcome objectives and time limits, stepping in and providing a service on behalf of the State, unless it is fully funded with no "gagging" clauses or similar restrictions
  • arguing that philanthropy and the Big Lottery, important as they are, should supplement and not replace tax funded public services; democratic government has a role to distribute wealth and income through progressive taxation and not leave this to individual philanthropists, however well-intentioned they may be
  • making the case that volunteering is not a free good; that it should not be a substitute for paid employment; and when it is applied to this end, there must be a strong consensus of all stakeholders involved
  • evolving new ways of working when delivering their charitable activities, whilst holding true to their values and missions

Above all charities have to argue that they are about much more than services - contracted or other. They form the backbone of civil society and are essential to democracy itself.

These words are easier to write than they are to address in the real world of contemporary charities. This is why "The Future of Good" can be a catalyst and the Big Lottery, hopefully, be a sponsor for a Big Debate on the role of charities in the twenty first century.

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