Nick Seddon’s new book challenges the idea of big charities delivering public services. Mark Ivory talks to the author

Nick Seddon claims to have been pleasantly surprised by the media reception for his book, Who Cares? How State Funding and Political Activism Change Charity. The heads of the big charities rushed to defend themselves in print the Daily Mail fulminated against their supposedly fat-cat salaries.

“Some of these responses to my book miss the point,” says Seddon. “They say that their charities do really good stuff, but my reply to them is, find me the bit in my book where I say you don’t.”

He had volunteered for a couple of small charities in Birmingham during his gap year and his book reads as a passionate defence of the minnows against the big charity pike. It concludes that only “independent charities”, taking less than 30 per cent of their income from the state, should continue to enjoy the existing tax concessions, while those taking more than 70 per cent should be stripped of charitable status and re-designated statutory agencies.

He says: “I wanted to provoke people into thinking about what the limits of state funding should be. I’m not sure I’d insist on the 70 per cent rule, but I wanted to ask why the limits individual charities impose on themselves should be so arbitrary and to think about a rational basis for deciding what’s a charity and what’s an arm of the state.”

Small charities, he says, lie at the heart of a vibrant civil society, yet their blood supply of private donations and public engagement is being cut off by the “supercharities” with their big brand names, marketing departments and expensively bought expertise in negotiating for government money.

Seddon denies a misty-eyed nostalgia for Victorian private philanthropy, though he speaks highly of it. “There were a lot of things about Victorian life that I wouldn’t want to go back to, but in some respects I think it was quite good. We’re seeing a rebirth of big philanthropy, not just in America with Bill Gates and people like him, but here too. It’ll be interesting to see whether history repeats itself.”

Even though public donations are declining as a proportion of charitable income, Seddon wants charities to be clearer about where their money comes from and how it is spent. He points to evidence suggesting that one in five people would give less and one in 20 would stop giving altogether, were they to find out that their chosen charity received more than four-fifths of its income from the state.

And he is suspicious of charity campaigns, particularly where the objectives are vague or over-ambitious. “I love the idea of the NSPCC’s Full Stop campaign and it would be fabulous if all humanity were changed by it and nobody hit a child. But if 10 years down the line there’s still cruelty to children there could be a backlash from the public wanting to know what has been done with their money.”

He attacks the NSPCC for its anti-smacking campaign, rapped over the knuckles along with the RSPCA’s drive against fox-hunting. Since his argument is that these campaigns were politically aligned – theoretically against Charity Commission rules – his case against the RSPCA looks stronger.

Even so he risks ruling out many well-intentioned charity campaigns when he says they should be avoided “if there is any possibility” they could be contested on party political lines. This would make it difficult for charities to lobby government on a wide range of social issues where a left-right divide could conceivably open up.

Once again he comes back to the small charities, arguing that they are harmed by super-charity campaigns mounted on flimsy evidence. “Small charities are dependent on the reputation of the sector generally. If you have an enormous brand presence and you’re campaigning very vigorously, you have to be responsible in the way you do that.”

Seddon’s three tiers: charities redefined

Independent charities
(receiving less than 30 per cent of their income from the state):

The National Trust
The Salvation Army

State-funded charities
(receiving between 30 and 70 per cent of their income from the state):

British Red Cross
Save the Children

Statutory agencies
(receiving 70 per cent or more of their income from the state):

Turning Point
National Family and Parenting Institute

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Voluntary sector special report

Contact the author
  Mark Ivory



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