Who Cares? How State Funding and Political Activism Change Charity
Nick Seddon, Civitas
ISBN: (10) 190338656X,
STAR RATING: 4/5
When does a charity cease to be a charity and become an arm of the state instead? The more charities sign up to public service contracts egged on by the government and its new Office of the Third Sector, the more insistent the question becomes.
It is at the heart of Nick Seddon’s diatribe against what he calls “animal farm syndrome”, the growing resemblance of parts of the voluntary sector to the state.
For Seddon, it is a story of decline and fall. We are taken from Victorian private philanthropy through the foundation of the welfare state in the early 20th century to the dawning of the contract culture towards its end. Even Margaret Thatcher, to whom the book’s publisher, the right-wing think tank Civitas, would normally be sympathetic, gets a pasting as head of a strongly centralising government which exercised still more control over charities.
In many respects Seddon’s diagnosis is spot on. Some of his arguments anticipate the Charity Commission’s recent report, Stand and Deliver, where the inability of most charities to recover the full costs of public service contracts is condemned along with the viral spread of “mission creep”.
This unpleasant condition, in which a public funder’s priorities skew the charity’s formal mission, is a genuine threat to the sector’s independence.
The book bashes the “bureaucracies of compassion”, the super-charities like NCH and Barnardo’s which rely on the state for most of their income, although another player in the big league, the NSPCC, most of whose revenues come from voluntary donations, is censured for an alleged lack of transparency in spending them.
But the main point appears to be that bureaucracy stifles innovation and the compassionate impulse which gives rise to charity in the first place. Professionals have replaced volunteers, targets have usurped the moral basis of social action. However, Seddon ignores the evidence from many large charities with a proud record of innovation, and practitioners who have combined efficiency with the compassion he advocates.
In his attack on the politicisation of charity, Seddon sometimes seems to condemn almost any attempt to influence public policy. Quite where this would have left, say, Child Poverty Action Group and Shelter is hard to see. Where the motive is the welfare of clients and is not plainly party political, there is a very sound case for charitable funding to lobby government.
The arguments for the book’s conclusion – three tiers of voluntary organisation in which those taking more than 70 per cent of their income from the state are stripped of charitable status – are therefore less than compelling. Its nostalgic attachment to Victorian values does not pass muster in a modern welfare system.
Mark Ivory is executive editor of Community Care
Voluntary sector: special report