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Big charities in the UK have lost their way: Time to listen and learn from service users!

THERE SEEMS TO BE SOMETHING ROTTEN with the state of the UK’s big charities. Recent major problems with global development charities like Oxfam and Save the Children can be seen as part of a much bigger crisis.

We have seen the squalid sexism and sexual harassment uncovered behind the closed doors of the Presidents Club annual dinner, supposedly held to raise money for mainstream charities and ‘disadvantaged children’.

We have seen the collapse of media and government favourite Kids Company after massive injections of public funding, with no serious comeback for either its trustees or chief executive officer (CEO).

It all seems to be part of a broader malaise in the voluntary sector. Most worryingly, all that is best about charitable organisations and public giving currently seems to be being gobbled up by some of what is worst.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and Association for Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) have long felt much more like voices for big charities than for local, small and pioneering initiatives - more spokesperson for agribusiness than tenant farmer. Big charity has been compromised in speaking out against the regressive direction of government social policy like welfare ‘reform’ and public housing cuts because of its own search for status, official contracts and honours for its leadership. It is an anomalous ‘charity sector’ that includes and advantages enormously rich public schools like Eton and Harrow and private hospital groups like the Nuffield Health hospitals group.

It has a regulator, the Charity Commission, that from the fiasco of Kids Company through to the recent Oxfam scandal has looked more hands off, in need of its own regulator than to be regulating others. As any user-led organisation (ULO) will tell you it seems to give more priority to preventing so-called beneficiaries of charities, like disabled people, being remunerated for the work they may do in them as trustees, than in ensuring reliable basic levels of accountability and ethical good practice in either fundraising or charitable activities. This Victorian notion of a world divided into ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ is appallingly anachronistic.

The problem with modern UK charities was first and most helpfully highlighted by the Christian socialist activist and writer Bob Holman, sadly no longer with us. He argued that it is the small voluntaries that make the difference. This was clearly evidenced with the response to the Grenfell fire.

But the trend is to big corporations, what he called the “super voluntaries”, amalgamating, getting ever bigger, obsessed with growth, with glossy metropolitan offices, more and more tiers of highly paid top management, supposedly working to ameliorate the situation of ‘the poor’ - for him one of the worst ironies. The rhetoric is of being a “stronger voice” with access to ministers, civil servants and the media. Meanwhile, so often what people want is not these private power conversations, but someone to enable them to get their voice heard so that they can directly speak truth to power.

Instead there are increasingly cosy relationships between ministers, big voluntary organisations and their CEOs, and less and less preparedness to speak out against rising inequality, social injustice, impoverishment and discrimination. MIND’s collaboration with government employment programmes which are part of the sanctioning regime, and Save the Children giving Tony Blair a ‘global legacy’ award, are glaring examples of how far removed from their roots and founding principles these organisations have become.

Meanwhile small local and black and minority ethnic (BME) projects face increasing difficulty in securing and retaining funding. While long standing social problems are worsening, funders are preoccupied with funding ‘the new’. The user-led organisation Shaping Our Lives found that among the biggest problems facing small grassroots charities and ULOs was the power of big charity to take their ground - drown them out - and the tendency of funders to privilege the big organisations despite their evident shortcomings.

In No Logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies, the radical commentator Naomi Klein argued that large multinational corporations consider the marketing of a brand name to be more important than the actual manufacture of products. We have seen the same happen with big charities, where the provision of practical support is giving way to a focus on brand and profile. Thus the CEO of the disability charity Scope says it wants to be a “social change organisation” whatever that is, as it offloads services and support to the private sector, to allow Scope to refocus on doing less, reaching more and having greater impact, although he said that would “mean an initial reduction in our annual income by 40% and see the number of employees reduce by two-thirds.”

The irony is that Scope has ‘offloaded’ large segregated schools and services for disabled people and is now moving in on the territory of user-led disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) by engaging in voice and campaigning activities - speaking about disabled people's experiences from non-disabled perspectives rather than authentic lived experience. Scope is a huge disability charity for disabled people, without the authenticity or credibility of being user-led. It cannot speak for disabled people but clearly it thinks it can. Its campaigns are more like marketing exercises to increase revenue for Scope. Meanwhile user-led DPOs are closing due to lack of finance because they object to disabled people being seen as objects of charity and they can’t compete with the power of the large charities and private sector organisations in the service delivery market place.

Is this really what the donating public want from voluntary organisations? Even more to the point, is it what people on the receiving end want? The answer seems to be a resounding No - on both counts. A major national, Big Lottery-funded research project highlighted what disabled people, for example, wanted from third sector organisations. It was small, local, human scale organisations and services, run and provided by people with shared experience and understanding, who were accountable, listened to what service users wanted and responded to their priorities, not just organisational or government ones. And what this project proved convincingly was that it was usercontrolled DPOs that were particularly good at meeting these requirements. The reality is that there is no one ‘charity’ or ‘voluntary’ sector.

Instead there is the world of big ‘charidee’, often top-heavy, inefficient, insensitive and self-aggrandising, with its disproportionate corps of senior managers, fundraisers and celebrity endorsement seekers. Then there are those more grassroots organisations, much closer to their constituencies, but having an increasing daily battle for survival. The system is riddled with perverse incentives which mean that the organisations that are least likely to be doing what people want of them are those that are currently receiving the lion’s share of the cake. What is urgently needed is an overarching, independent review of the third sector, committed to developing a coherent, progressive policy for ULOs as part of a renewal of future welfare state policy.

An incoming Labour government must balance taking privatised and outsourced services back into state ownership alongside creating the conditions for a vibrant voluntary sector. This will deal with some of the problems of the big charities which have lost their way. However, part of the challenge will be how to reconnect to and reinvigorate small grassroots charities, ULOs and community groups which are innovators and real social change organisations. A strategy to enable this to happen is an essential preparation for a socialist Labour government.

Independent futures: Creating user-led disability services in a disabling society, Barnes, C, Mercer, G, 2006, Bristol: Policy Press in association with the British Association of Social Workers.

  • Peter Beresford is co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, the disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network, and Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex. »
  • Mark Harrison is director of Social Action Solutions. He is a member of Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, an alliance of disabled people’s organisations in England. He is also a member of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).  
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