…and I’m not talking about people who blank them or people who shout at them. (Chuggers – ‘charity muggers’ who try to accost you in the street seeking donations via direct debit – might be annoying, but don’t deserve rudeness or violence).
I take a different tack. Hey, I’m an ex-civi servant who’s been institutionalised!
“Oh hai Poofflez, Like to donayte to chariddee?!?!” Or something along those lines. When not in a rush and if the person stopping me looks like the kind of person you could have a reasonable conversation with, I ask them for their spiel – or ‘lines to take.’ After giving them the opportunity to say ‘I’m a chugger, don’t really know much about the charity but I need the money’ (which we all do in these tough economic times) I then start with the interrogation from hell. Well…I don’t actually – I’ve only ever done this once, and it goes a little something like this.
“How much did your charity spend last year?”
“What are your charity’s current cash reserves? (i.e. are you hoarding cash or are you spending it?)”
“Give me some examples – case studies if you like – of projects where your charity has made a real difference”
“Give me a ballpark figure of what your charity spent on administration last year, and what percentage of donations did this make up?”
“What are the salaries of your charity’s top executives?”
I can be a real beast if I want to!
The problems with charities are not just with chuggers – whose activities can tarnish the name of the charities that they are fundraising for. There is a wider issue of how ‘charity’ and ‘charities’ are seen in society.
Campaigning vs Service Delivery
This is an issue that Andy Bower (a local (to me) Conservative activist regularly raises with Puffles. Do the campaigning activities of charities compromise their political neutrality – especially those that generate funds through the delivery of public sector contracts? It’s a reasonable question. Before anyone kicks off on this, please see the Charity Commission’s guidance first. (It regulates charities).
But the answer is a little bit more complicated. In times gone by – thinking in particular of the post-1945 settlement, public services were predominantly paid for and delivered by the state. To get a feel for how public services were built up from a historical perspective, I strongly recommend Tristram Hunt’s book Building Jerusalem which he wrote before being elected a Labour MP in Stoke.
Now, with the state delivering and funding public services and with charities raising money, campaigning and/or delivering things separate to the state, the lines between the two institutions was pretty clear cut.
The thing is, charities can be better at delivering some services than the state. My experience with Centre 33 in helping me deal with mental health issues was far better than with my local NHS provider. You may well have your own examples too. With this in mind, it’s understandable that politicians started to look at ‘non-state’ providers to deliver public services – in particular where those charities already had a developed infrastructure on the ground and were highly regarded in the communities that they operated in. Hence the development of the “commissioning model” which is weaved into “New Public Management” thinking. My own reading into this made me question where all the empirical and academic studies were that demonstrated that this model was any more efficient than delivering stuff in house (e.g. do they take into account costs of outsourcing and contract management, as well as the ‘soft services’ that inhouse teams provide through goodwill rather than saying “it’s not in the contract, ask someone else.”?)
Once there is a financial link between the state and a not-for-profit organisation, things can become complicated for the latter in particular. This is especially the case with the huge cuts that are being made to public service budgets. Charities in their campaigning roles are inevitably speaking out because of the social impacts of the cuts, while their delivery arms have to cope with reduced budgets or contracts that are not renewed – inevitably having a knock-on effect on their additional activities – which increases the pressure to speak out.
Getting into messy politics
You’ve seen the political speeches and the parliamentary exchanges.
“You don’t have to take our word for it – all of these organisations have said that they agree with us!”
It’s a bit like saying “We know that the public think we’re lying toe-rags, but those institutions over there have good reputations and they are saying they agree with us so we must be right!” (Hat-tip to Colin Hay and his book “Why we hate politics” for the tip off on that one). Understandably tribal political types start getting angry if a registered charity starts getting a little too close to the sides that are not theirs – hence why charities must be very careful when speaking at one political party conference and not another during conference season.
When is a charity not a charity?
Being a charity brings with it a whole host of rights and responsibilities. One of the things that has caused problems for local businesses – second hand bookshops in particular - is the rate relief charity shops get on their activities. Cambridge has lost a number of independent bookshops, including Browns which was a goldmine of knowledge. I don’t know to what extent the Amnesty International Bookshop took away its trade, or to what extent Amazon had on its closure but it’s understandable that small businesses feel particularly aggrieved when faced with a charity shop in the same area effectively being given an advantage.
There’s also the issue of institutions that predominantly serve the affluent and the rich – thinking the top public schools. This came to a head in the latter years of the Labour administration when through the Charity Commission and its then head Dame Suzi Leather tried to tighten up the rules to force such institutions to demonstrate far more of a benefit to those less well off than they had otherwise been providing. (See also the BBC’s take at the time).
Executive pay and remuneration
In the era of coverage on high pay and the pay of executives, just how much are chief executives of charities worth? There are a number of chief executives on six figure salaries. Do these salaries undermine the reputations of these charities in the minds of the general public? Should charitable donations be ‘ringfenced’ with administrative costs coming in from service delivery contracts or income from investments? I feel uneasy at making charitable donations knowing that some of it might go on the chief executive’s courtesy car. Hence why most of my charitable donations are in kind.
This is always going to be a controversial issue. The well-known public figures I tend to have more respect for are those who develop long term and consistent relationships with a small number of charities – the former cricketer Sir Ian Botham being a good example with Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. Problems arise when celebrities ‘misbehave’ and/or do something that tarnishes the reputation of the charities they publicly support. In my mind, the whole ‘celebrity culture’ of recent times has brought the term ‘charidee’ into the public lexicon – which I think is a reflection of the ‘cheapening’ of the hard-won reputations earned by those who do the ground work but don’t get the publicity or acknowledgement for what they do. There is also the ‘transparency’ issue which I first clocked on the back of Live8 – Live Aid 20 years on. A number of performers had significant increases in record sales on the back of those performances. Was that concert a simple case of free marketing? (Or am I a cynic?)
Tax avoidance and tax evasion
This is a tricky issue not least because it is so politicised – to the extent every time Puffles tweets about it a number of people come after Puffles. Just so we are CRYSTAL CLEAR, tax avoidance is legal, and tax evasion is a criminal offence. Tax AVOIDANCE is defined by The Treasury (in a document signed off by a Conservative minister – so any Conservatives who have an issue with this, take it up with your minister, not me) as:
“…[involving] using the tax law to get a tax advantage that Parliament never intended” (First paragraph of the executive summary on Page 5)
Remember too that this document was written at a time when the Conservatives were – and still are the biggest party in Parliament. Labour too are not off the hook – things got this bad on tax avoidance under your watch.
There. Political rant over.
Now, what are the two issues?
One issue is the use wealthy people make of the tax system to reduce their tax bills through exploiting charitable tax relief. Another issue is people trying to excuse tax avoidance because an individual gives a lot of money to charity. We tried Victorian style philanthropy in the Victorian era. It did not work – hence the (imperfect) welfare state – which will be the subject of a future blogpost in itself. Charitable giving is what people choose to give irrespective of their tax obligations, not instead of. People who excuse tax avoidance because of charitable giving in my mind undermine the very charities – and the acts of charitable and philanthropical giving. This for me is not in the public interest.
On the whole, I think charities are a good thing. That said, there are a number of areas that policy makers – and charities themselves – need to consider in order to ensure charities and charitable giving is not undermined in the eyes of the public.