Another day, another headline attacking UK charities in the press. There’s no doubt 2015 has been an annus horribilis for the voluntary sector in this country. I can’t remember a time when charities have felt so beleaguered and morale has been so low.
As the year has developed, the focus has shifted from the fundraising practices of mostly large charities to a generalised assault on a variety of fronts from senior executive pay through overhead expenditures to governance.
The stories follow a pattern. First an “investigation” by the Mail, Telegraph or Times. Then a response from William Shawcross, Chair of the Charity Commission and/or Rob Wilson, Minister of Civil Society which never challenges the charges being made (even when transparently distorted) but which rebukes the sector for misbehaviour. The Tory tabloids often take up the story, conflating unrelated issues such as Kids’ Company and fundraising practices into a narrative of charity scandal.
But has anyone asked, why has all of this happened?
Let’s take a step back. The origin of this particular crisis was a series of investigations mounted by the Daily Mail over the early months of this year into charity fundraising. Undercover reporters spent long periods in a number of agencies, an investment of journalistic resources which is highly unusual in today’s straightened times for the the print media. Stories then appeared at intervals which seem calculated to keep the issue in the public eye. The government response to these stories was extremely swift, indicating that key people had been briefed well in advance.
Over recent months, the rest of the right wing press has become increasingly involved. The Telegraph and the Times have chosen the peak giving Christmas period to run front page stories on overhead costs and CEO pay, clearly deliberately calculated to inflict maximum harm on the sector. The Times editorials are now attacking charity tax reliefs and being echoed by (so far) backbench Tory politicians.
Does this look like a conspiracy to you? All the attacks are coming from the political Right. Is this a deliberate campaign by the government to attack the charity sector?
There’s certainly a pattern that is worth investigating. Since the election, there has been a definite sense of Conservatives settling scores. Just ask the unions. But have the governing party really decided to take on the whole voluntary sector?
On the face of it, this is absurd. In a time of vicious public spending cuts, there is more dependency on the voluntary sector than ever before. The sector employs 2 million people and directly helps many, many more. There is hardly anyone in the country who has not got some relationship with a UK charity. This goes for Tory voters too, the backbone of support for vast numbers of charities are exactly the sort of middle England voters who keep the Conservatives in power. The idea that the charity sector is dominated by the Left is completely false*.
What political genius would pick a fight with a sector that touches the hearts of so many people including their own core supporters? Or which if it didn’t exist would leave a hole in public services or enormous proportions?
And yet, this does seem to be exactly what the Tory Party are doing. You might not believe this is a deliberate strategy but it certainly looks co-ordinated. Perhaps the intent is simply to bully the sector, to ensure that opposition to cuts in public services is muted.
If so, I think the campaign is so far proving successful. The collective response by the sector to the series of attacks has been, I think we would all agree, utterly inadequate to put it kindly. Sector bodies have been extremely weak, in some ways (as with the Fundraising Preference Scheme which was the brainchild of the NCVO no less) actually making things worse. Charity leaders, chairs of trustees and CEOs have been almost entirely absent from the media. The French put up more of a fight in 1940.
The sector’s natural allies haven’t helped either but maybe they haven’t been asked to. The liberal press, such as it is, has generally ignored the story except in specialist sections. The opposition parties are engaged in their own traumas. No well known public figure has spoken out on this issue.
We need to change this. The collective strength of the voluntary sector is enormous but it is not being exercised. The more the narrative shifts to a generalised attack on charities, the more dangerous it is politically for the government. If Macmillan said which cancer support services in which constituencies would stop if Gift Aid was abolished, or RNLI said which lifeboat services would be cut back, politicians would start paying attention very quickly. And we have thousands of stories like that.
But we need to start hitting back. And treating this as what it is, a political campaign that needs to be fought in the same way. It’s a battle for the hearts and minds of the British people. And surely charities are better placed than politicians to win that?
* I mean there are a few of us, but we’re not that representative, actually.