Bring Back the Ronseal Test


First published in Huffington Post

I have recently come to the conclusion that nothing does what it says on the tin any more. Or at least what is written on the tin has ceased to have much to do with what’s in it. This has particularly come to mind over the past week. There was the announcement that, at last, there will be an inquest into the shooting of Mark Duggan which supposedly ‘triggered’ last year’s riots. A report making the case for local authorities to raid their employees’ pension funds in order to boost housebuilding, was another prompt. And then there was the story about how Cancer Research UK was voted the most popular charity ‘brand’, with the likes of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty International not far behind.

What struck me the most about the latest riots-related news was, first of all, this idea that Duggan’s death in some way caused the riots. I don’t think it did in any meaningful sense. It is perhaps better to understand what happened as akin to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. The events were connected but almost arbitrarily so. But in the absence of anything else, it seems to have become the stand-in for an explanation for something that was quite inexplicable and unexpected. While apologists for the rioters have talked up the poverty, lack of opportunities and poor relations with the police, none of these while attendant factors explain anything. While I don’t accept as some have argued that they weren’t riots at all – according to my dictionary a riot is a ‘noisy disturbance by a crowd’ – they were fundamentally lacking in any sort of content. The violent public display (what was written on the tin) rang hollow. Not that this stopped commentators, politicians and academics – no less opportunistically than the rioters themselves – hurriedly projecting their pet theories onto what were meaningless, if no less serious for that, outbursts.

The world of housing policy, not known for its outbursts of activity – as the absence of housebuilding attests – has also been failing the Ronseal test for some time now. The latest wheeze in an increasingly desperate attempt to boost ‘affordable’ housing and inject some life into an inflated yet standstill housing market, only confirms this. While all sorts of bad ideas from blaming under-occupiers and those with second homes for the housing crisis, to creating new confusing mixes of traditional tenures, are entertained by those hopelessly steeped in bricks ‘n’ mortar jargon; they seem not to notice that housing policy is no longer about housing as such. Social landlords, for instance, don’t build houses any more. They like to be known as ‘community builders’. They are providers of social services, on the one hand, ‘supporting’ their allegedly vulnerable tenants, and getting heavy on the other, policing the anti-social ones. According toDavid Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, ‘the mission is to improve people’s lives, to help them fulfil their potential, to support their aspirations and to create functioning and healthy communities’. Even if that was all all very well – which it isn’t – that’s not what it says on the tin.

The charity world, by way of contrast, has been guilty less of mission creep than of a complete absence of mission. Which is ironic when you think about it. The association of the very notion of charity with the religious orders of missionaries who sought to spread the word; or with the pious reformers of the 19th Century at home penalising and patronising as much as helping the poor, may not be entirely flattering. But it is a reminder of a time when there was no doubt as to the message. Today’s charities evidently have a great deal of difficulty articulating what it is they stand for. There are a number of reasons for this. The reliance of many, particularly the most well-known, charities on the state with regards both their funding and policy agendas, are foremost among them. But it is the absence of that desire to meet desperate need that led Dr Barnardo to create a school for the East End’s orphaned and homeless children; or of that sense of outrage at the filmic depiction of homelessness in Cathy Come Home that led to the creation of Shelter.

Its not that we lack social problems. While grinding poverty and child destitution are largely problems of the past, there are a few good causes I can think of that don’t get the attention they deserve. Whether its campaigning for real development rather than the so-called sustainable development that world’s poorest typically get, or in defence of those scientists and institutions experimenting on animals in the interests of medical science. Whatever you deem to be a good cause I urge you next time somebody rattles a tin – or in the case of a chugger, their clipboard – in your direction to enquire as to its contents. Not literally, but what is it that they are campaigning for and why should you help them with it? The same goes for Orr and the housing sector. If you are no longer about building and managing the housing stock but would rather manage tenants’ lives, then whose going to solve our housing problem? And if we are to make sense of what happened last summer then we need to get to grips with the mismatch between the rioters’ vandalism of their communities and the worthy excuses. I’m sure there are other similar wood-treatment products out there but only the Ronseal test will get us any closer to making sure that riots, housing associations and charities do what they say on the tin.

Why I Won’t Be Cooperating


First published in Huffington Post

I was pleased to hear recently that I am not alone in arguing that the charity sector needs to reclaim its independence.

According to Matt Scott of the National Coalition for Independent Action, it has ‘become predatory rather than collaborative’ as the big beasts of the sector compete for, and win, contracts. That’s life, you might say. And yet, a recent report suggests, we are generally more giving of ourselves than we think.

We are too often portrayed as a conflictual, competitive bunch. So says Charles Leadbeater, author of a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. From the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ to Adam Smith’s faith not in the ‘benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker’ but in ‘their regard to their own interest’. From Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene to ‘its intellectual twin’ of neoclassical laissez-faire economics. The ‘assumption of selfishness’ needs to be replaced with a new assumption, he says. ‘We are, first and foremost, reciprocators and cooperators’.

We are social and moral beings predisposed to act according to a commonly held sense of fairness. He cites social dilemma studies that repeatedly demonstrate this, and developmental psychologists who show that even infants not yet able to speak are capable of empathy. The history of civilisation is one of the spoils not of war and conquest, but of our capacity for cooperation and its ‘generative’ potential. Which all sounds very good but, says Leadbeater, in a society ‘unequal and riven by divides’ this apparently commonly-held facility to get on with each other is under threat.

‘For decades we have been used to addressing problems through the lens of selfishness and the market’, he claims. Last year’s riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester were in keeping with a ‘moral tone set by bankers who pocket massive bonuses, politicians who fiddle their expenses, and journalists who think nothing of hacking into others’ phones’. An ‘orgy of opportunistic, selfish materialism, is lurking just beneath the surface’ and ‘ready to erupt at any moment’. Which is simultaneously true and wide of the mark.

Blaming ‘selfish materialism’ for the unseemly behaviour of people in hoodies and pinstripes alike has been the Left’s all-purpose excuse for its own political bankruptcy since the days of Thatcher. Likewise its disgust with the Murdochs betrays a distaste for those that abandoned it all those years ago. But this wider sense of unease briefly but violently brought to the surface during the riots is really worth getting to grips with. Leadbeater is right to be disturbed not by a liking for expensive sportswear and electrical goods, but that the rioters ‘revelled in their disdain for the norms of civil society’. It did appear for a moment that society was indeed broken.

Bizarrely he thinks the famously pointless (and I’d presumed departed) Occupy movement might be able to put it back together again by ‘reasserting norms of decency, cooperation and reciprocity’. Alternatively he hopes that a ‘relatively small group of super-altruists’, by which he must mean those apparently predatory charities, will come to the rescue. But in the end he settles for people like him (and me, to be fair) – policy wonks – to make the ‘cooperative correction’ and promote ‘everyday civility’. For Leadbeater, we don’t cooperate at the drop of the methaphorical hat. We are merely ‘conditional cooperators’. The only trouble is that those conditions are, apparently, missing. The role of policy is to ‘restore those conditions’ and ‘build on intrinsic motivations towards cooperation’.

So, despite cooperation being ‘intrinsic’ and, therefore, built into our very being, things have got so very bad that the wonks must intervene. There are five conditions but I’ll leave you with just one. Number two says: ‘Reliance on formal rules can drive out the day-to-day give-and-take of people adjusting to one another and learning to get on’. In other words, its not just charities who need their independence, and the likes of Leadbeater (and me) should but out.

Why the big society should prompt a clean-up in the charity sector


First published in Guardian

The charity sector has lost its way and seems to have given up on its founding notions. We are seeing a rather unseemly scramble for funding as charities seek to retain what they can of their state hand-outs while public services are cut. Or fundraisers, particularly those pesky chuggers, seemingly unacquainted with the causes for which they are apparently campaigning. Volunteers are expected to be as interested in their own employability as they are in helping other people. And the sector is apparently more interested in contracts and compacts than campaigns and causes.

I don’t think we should blame the cuts or the “big society”, as many in the sector do, for the problems charities face. The whole point of the big society – and the reason why I welcomed it at first – was that it proclaimed itself to be against an overbearing big state. We were told it was for the idea that people are able to do things for themselves, and to run their own lives without being “supported” all the time. But it seems that the charity sector doesn’t see the big society in quite the same way, and the inference that it would not play the starring role in the coalition’s big idea really rankled.

“We are the big society”, it screamed. But is this true? At the same time that the sector has been claiming to represent us – to be the 99% (to borrow a phrase) – it has also boasted of its special relationship with the state. There is little pretence from sector leaders that it has any real independence, or indeed that this should be a problem. This “dual role” as both campaigner and service provider is described as a positive boon, allowing it influence that it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also means that charities don’t stand for anything much anymore. The sector has no identity of its own, straddling both state and society. And so the promise of the big society, already held back by the prejudices of a parochial political culture, has become just another argument about funding, rooted in the charity sector’s historical sense of entitlement.

To the extent that charities have increasingly focused on providing services rather than campaigning, no matter how good a job they do they are no longer charities in any meaningful sense. The Shelters, NSPCCs and RSPCAs of the charity world bear little resemblance to their former selves. They struggle with their dual identity as very sizeable public servants, on the one hand, and rather compromised campaigners, on the other. Is it any wonder that public trust in charities is reportedly “second only in volatility to its trust in banks“? Nobody knows what they’re for any more. By shifting the focus of their work from tackling a social problem to managing their relationship with state bodies, they neglect what it is that gave them their reason for being in the first place.

My experience working with local government and the charity sector in one of the areas most affected by the August riots has been instructive. People have been coming forward, wanting to do something. The authorities have been going on about how uninterested and disengaged people are, and yet when they have come knocking on the door, are at a loss as to what to do with them. This has been interpreted by charity leaders as a problem created by the cuts – about not having the resources, and in particular the volunteer managers – to respond to this unexpected outpouring of community spirit. But I’m not so sure. I think it is their disjoint from the communities they claim to represent and serve that gets in the way of capturing that spirit.

The authorities – and I include the charity sector here – were taken aback that communities were rather more capable of building themselves than they’d imagined. That much-sought-after “sense of community” did what big society advocates and critics alike said it couldn’t – it emerged of its own accord. The clean-ups were organised overnight on Facebook and Twitter by impromptu “pop-up” community groups. Volunteers got their brooms out before the smoke – both metaphorical and real – had settled, and then went their separate ways. Some wondered whether we were finally seeing the big society in action, but not in a good way.

One way or another, the big society is doomed. The charity sector doesn’t have the resources to deliver it. We ordinary folk are not to be trusted with it. And, as some have noted, Cameron and his government have been talking a lot less about it anyway, as it has increasingly been seen as a byword for the cuts. This is a shame, not only because the big society preceded the cuts, but because its prospects should never have hinged on the cuts in the first place. It should have been a project for freeing up society, and creating a new culture of self-reliance, not a programme for government and its friends in the extended state sector to argue over. And yet, despite a sector seemingly intent on digging its own grave, we might try to breathe new life into the idea of charity. One more suited to today. And we might still resurrect some of the more appealing aspects of the big society, whatever we decide to call it. Maybe that way, rather than it being a clean-up for the charity sector, we can claim it for ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech I gave at this weekend’s Leeds Summat

Charities should accept their game is up


First published in Independent

According to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, ‘independence – of purpose, voice and action – is what makes the voluntary sector special’. Sounds fair enough, but why the need for a panel? Is something amiss that makes such pronouncements necessary? Apparently so. Labour MP Lisa Nandy has accused her party’s former government of treating the voluntary sector as a ‘third arm of the state’. There is, no doubt, an element of seeking to co-opt charities to top-down agendas, but there has been little to suggest dastardly take-over plans. While congratulating itself on creating the self-evidently absurd Office of the Third Sector, the party’s policy review group admits to a ‘lack of overall narrative in Labour’s approach to the sector’.

The charity sector has hardly been dragged kicking and screaming down Whitehall. Like the political parties, charities are increasingly uncertain about their role in society. They also have in common, in the absence of a wider base of support, an obsession with wealthy donors. Far from resisting the advances of officialdom it has ‘taken on the role of the state and taken government funding’ into the bargain, says Nandy. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, seems to agree. He claims that some charities ‘tend to regard success as getting a place on a government committee’. It isn’t hard to imagine why this courtship makes sense from the perspective of a political class not usually associated with do-gooding. According to Nandy, ‘government loves charities because of that legitimacy’.

But, she cautions (and a little too late I fear), ‘charities must think carefully before they give it away’. The National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises reports a third of respondents describing themselves as service providers compared with one in five two years ago. Nearly a quarter regard this – not campaigning for social justice or the good cause – as their main function. The Big Society, while profoundly irritating for many in the sector, was the culmination of an ever more intimate relationship between state and the so-called civil-society sector. Consequently, far from making us more free, it has only further ingrained a long-standing relationship of dependence. This relationship is only exposed by the severity of the cuts to the public sector, particularly as local authorities close ostensibly ‘public’ services.

A recent report concludes that today’s ‘charities struggle to measure their impact’. But too often this is understood in the narrow managerial terms laid out by local authorities, of specifying the contribution of this or that intervention to the achievement of this or that outcome. Why should voluntary organisations reduce themselves to this, and account for themselves in this way? The adoption of this rather forced and technical language to try to articulate the contribution of charities to the public good, only confirms that the sector is morally as well as financially bankrupt. It lost its independence long ago. Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary Organisations, argued after the riotsthat we should be ‘giving them direction and showing them far better alternatives’. He was talking about the rioters but he might just as easily have been talking about the organisations he represents.

This stumbling around for something, anything, around which to articulate what charities are for suggests that the game is up. I wish they would just stand on their own two feet, but they don’t even know who or what they stand for anymore. If you ask me, the charity sector and political class are propping each other up like a couple of down-and-outs. And who’s going to help them?

Why feel charitable towards charities?


First published in Spiked

The UK charity sector isn’t feeling very charitable at the moment. It is, after all, being asked to deliver the Big Society while itself being subject to Big Cuts.

In an open letter to the prime minister, Stephen Bubb, chief executive officer of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), warnsof an approaching ‘tidal wave of growing needs and rising cuts’. This new ‘programme for government’, this ‘renaissance for civil society’, he says (without any sense that these two things might be contradictory) is being starved of the funds it desperately needs. Stop ignoring us and give us the money we need for ‘supporting the poor and vulnerable’, demands Bubb. Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) echoes this plea: ‘We support the idea of the Big Society, but the government needs to take swift action now to ensure that voluntary organisations survive to deliver it.’

As a consequence of the £81 billion of cuts announced in last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, local authorities need to save around £6.5 billion this year, and the charity sector is going to be nearly £3 billion worse off over the next five years.

However, Patrick Butler from the Guardian says: ‘The cuts are not directed at charities as such, but at services which charities happen to provide.’ These typically include things like ‘supported housing, women’s refuges, family support’ etc. It is the ‘vulnerable beneficiaries’, he argues, who will suffer most as they lose ‘a few hundred pounds here, a few thousand there; a youth worker made redundant here, a day centre’s hours dramatically reduced there’. All of these things add up and will in many cases, it is claimed, have a quite devastating impact on the people who use these services and who receive support from the charities affected. According to the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action: ‘This will cause real damage to many communities, which is why we all have a duty to speak out to protect services for our most vulnerable citizens.’

You might have noticed by now that the word ‘vulnerable’ keeps coming up. Which is why we have a duty to be more sceptical about some of the claims made on behalf of those ‘vulnerable groups’ we are told will be hit the hardest, especially given the hardships charities anticipate for themselves. There is, it seems, a degree of competitive claims-making and vaulting victimhood, as each charity seeks to out-patronise the other, as they in turn are patronised by the state. Is it really the case that our streets will fill with homeless drug-users, or that there will be a ‘surge’ in domestic abuse, if certain charities lose their funding or close down, as has been claimed? Are some of them guilty of inflating problems that are less pressing than we might be led to believe, or of inventing catastrophes should their funding be withdrawn? To what extent are they providing a useful service for people in desperate need, rather than hiding behind the vulnerable status of their supposed beneficiaries?

A recent piece in the Guardian expresses shock and outrage that a charity helping men being abused by their partners should lose some of its funding. After all, the British Crime Survey says that one in six men experience domestic violence. Is that really true?

What this actually suggests to me is that perhaps some services do need cutting. And the charities that provide these services should be denied the state support – indeed, life support – that is keeping them going. While I am in no way against charities providing public services – they often do a better job in many instances than local authority departments – when charities belittle those they claim to be working for; when they effectively become an arm of the state, we do need to ask ourselves what we mean by ‘charity’. The programme of cuts that charities are rallying against at the moment is nothing to be celebrated in itself, but it does expose the extent to which charities have become dependent upon the state.

As Butler puts it, what we are witnessing is the ‘extended state, if you like, being decommissioned’. Over a third of voluntary sector organisations receive state funding. That comes to around £12 billion per year. It is little wonder, in the midst of the economic crisis and severe public-spending restraint, that charities now find themselves in a state of crisis. A total of 1,600 charities reportedly went out of business in the Lib-Con coalition’s first year. Others have merged. Not only have charities lost much of their funding from the state, but private donations from members of the public are also on the decline. This no doubt reflects the fact that we all have less to give, but it also points to the sector’s increasing lack of legitimacy. It seems to have lost its way and, as a consequence, has sought out the wealthy corporate donor and the tax break, rather than going to the trouble of making the case for ‘the cause’ – whatever that might be – to the general public.

Stephen Bubb argues that the sector can and should provide services, while retaining its ‘independent voice’. He gave a talk last year explaining how, prior to the Reformation, the ‘concept of an independent charity sector was unknown because the affairs of charity and state were intimately entwined’. It was the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that brought us the ‘campaigning charity’ against cruelty to animals, for instance, and only then, bizarrely, children. Of course, as he suggests, charities like Shelter and the NSPCC continue to provide services and to campaign, too.

But this ‘dual role’ is deeply problematic because it confuses what charities are for – undermining any claim to be a truly ‘independent voice’, while endorsing them as somehow representative. Bubb, like many in the sector, wants it both ways. But charities that work for the state and at the same time campaign against it are inevitably compromised. The charity sector does not represent us. Shelter, for all its good work, does not represent the homeless and the NSPCC is far from representing abused children, still less the adult population of whom it has a very dim view.

Indeed, one might ask, who does the charity sector represent other than itself? And, as a result, why should we stand up for it when the money runs out?

Charity Begins At Home?


First published in Huffington Post

While out converging with Corporate Social Responsibility enthusiasts in trendy Smithfield, our flat screen TV was being 40½ inched through our front living room window. Suffice to say that the finer points of fundraising strategy – the topic of discussion between complimentary glasses of wine – were no longer foremost in my mind. I was instead wondering how the intruders had got below the radar of the curtain-twitchers across our usually uneventful suburban street. But more riling was the response of the authorities or the lack thereof. We were made victims not so much by the smash-and-grab opportunists but by the managerial local constabulary and their therapeutic friends at registered charity (and proposed beneficiary of prison labour) Victim Support. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, their combined efforts, while doing nothing to apprehend the culprits, only succeeded in placing us firmly in the box marked ‘victim’.

‘On being burgled’ wasn’t supposed to be the topic of this, my first, Huffington Post. Next month I will be speaking at Doing it for charity? at the Battle of Ideas in London. The title of the debate alludes to Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s 1990s satirical Radio 1 DJs Smashy and Nicey. They liked to do lots for ‘charidee’ but didn’t like to talk about it – the joke being, of course, that they could talk about little else. These characters came to mind while listening to Kim Van Niekirk, founder of coffeehouseinitiative.com and Kate Wolfenden of Childreach International, on that unexpectedly fateful evening.

Van Niekirk began by taking us back to a more naïve time, the 1980s, when millions put their hands in their pockets for the bloated babies of Ethiopia. Several Live-Aid and Comic Relief-esque efforts later, and with more swollen bellies to boot, we’re a much more cynical lot. Today’s ‘savvy donor’ takes much more persuading. Or at least they would do, I thought to myself, if fundraisers actuallytried to persuade us. Instead, they are more interested in nudging us, as Wolfenden enthused, into ‘changing habits and behaviours’ that might also ‘help us save lives around the world’. In an age where people are wise to the failures of charity appeals, and when fundraising has become increasingly professionalised, it is ‘all about you, the donor’ said Van Niekirk. But since when was charity about the donor, the ‘extension of what they want to be and what they want the world to be like’ or helping us to ‘become more rounded citizens’? This resorting by a charity sector that has evidently lost its way to the donor-flattering politics of identity is nothing to celebrate.

Whatever happened to the good cause or ‘charidee’ as we used to know it? Surely this should be the focus of fundraising efforts – convincing people that the cause, whatever it might be, is a good thing in itself and worth supporting? While today’s sector seems to have lost track of what charity is all about, it seems to want to turn the rest of us into self-regarding Smashys and Niceys. More worrying still is the petty-authoritarian streak. Presumably resigned to the fact that they can’t make much of a difference in the world anymore, potential donors are being asked not just to donate money but to see the ills of the world through the prism of their politically-incorrect lifestyles. Whether its eco-guilt tripping with Van Niekirk’s green light switches, or financial gimmicks like Wolfenden’s loyalty cards. There’s no attempt to engage us as thoughtful, compassionate types who might just be interested in helping our fellow human beings, without it having to be all about us.

Having said that, sometimes charity does begin at home. Our neighbours rallying around, with their kindly enquiries, shared anxieties and sugary mugs of tea, couldn’t have been more charitable.