Government in danger of misunderstanding charities at their peril

Language is everything in politics. We hang of every word of our politicians for any hint of a change in tone or content that might indicate whether a batlle is lost or won. The same is true of those campaigning for change. Just read my blogs from all three party conferences.

It feels in this eleventh hour before the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) that the language is hardening on both sides, that the courting is over and that hard truths are being spoken. I was pleased, for instance, to see such a stout defence of the charity position by the Wellcome Trust (our largest member) in today’s Guardian which reflects the position we articulated in our letter to The Times some weeks ago.

I think that I speak for my member charities when I say that there is a perennial frustration over the sense that the government talks about the contribution of medical research charities as a ‘nice to have’ bonus rather than recognising the essential and integral part it plays in making science happen in the UK. It used to talk about the charity sector’s delivery of care services in the same way until it realised it couldn’t deliver a welfare state without.

Similarly, in research, the UK would be ‘poorer’ without the contribution of charities in every sense of that word.

You only have to look at the latest figures on health research spend in the US which have been put out by the influential lobby group, Research!America to see what I mean. Now, few can compete with the sheer scale of funding in the States but I decided to do some number crunching myself (always a dangerous thing I know) to compare the contribution of the charity sector in the US to that in the UK.

Research spending is spliced differently there but if you add up what seem the most comparable aspects of ‘government’ funding in terms of NIH, state government funding etc and then add up the contributions of the voluntary health associations, philanthropic associations and independent institutes you get a total spend equivalent to £42.7 billion.

Its a rought cut I know. But if you now articulate the ‘charity’ contribution in the US as a proportion of all public expenditure there you get a figure of just under 8%. Even then, I think that is slightly inflated because of the nature of some of the organisations classed as NGOs.

What’s the proportion of public expenditure contributed by charities in the UK? Approximately one third.

But as Mark Walport so rightly put it in The Guardian this morning, it is less about the money than the synergy between the charity sector here with its other partners, the fact the sector is pushing in the same direction rather than entertaining private concerns as some of the American NGOs are wont to do.

If our government really does believe charities are a potential substitute for their forthcoming plans then they have seriously misunderstood the nature of the sector in the UK. Indeed, it is the sort of thinking upon which best laid plans will quickly unravel. I am even tempted to say something about ‘gift horses’ but is the end of a long week and that may be a little over the top.

What do you think?

One thought on “Government in danger of misunderstanding charities at their peril

  1. I would like comment on the misunderstanding of charities in the social care sector.

    Social care couldn’t be delivered without charities, beause after Community Care legislation, state provided services were tendered out to charities- and most charities who deliver social care services do so with the money which used to pay for state services. This deliberate marketisation of our social care and the misunderstanding of the role the voluntary sector play is common.

    They are not ‘charities’ in any sense that you or I would understand them. Organisations, funded by local authorities to provide services- which have a charitable status for tax purposes might be more appropriate.

    The voluntary sector in this field is far from voluntary.


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