Today's Times has an interesting piece by Libby Purves on the politicisation and professionalisation of
the UK's voluntary sector. Taking stock of development since the 1970's Ms Purves observes some distinct and worrying changes in the ethos and priorities of many charities.
Professionalisation, she concedes, was inevitable. Like any organisation a charity needs systems to function effectively. The large salaries for senior executives that have followed were perhaps inevitable too. The problem with professionalisation is that it is has often been accompanied by a 'commercialisation'. Staff begin to be 'employees' of a company, rather than committed activists to the charitable cause.
More worrying than the profesionalisation of charities though, it the 'politicisation' of many organisations. In charities search for funding, and in the Government's pursuit of ways to 'out-source' the delivery of services, many charities have been drawn into the web of Government, becoming indistinguishable from the quangos with which they compete for taxpayers money.
The steady gravitational pull of central Government has left many big charities utterly reliant on the state for their funds. A perverse consequence of this is that many charities are now allocating less of their resources on actually doing what they were set up to do (protect children, protect the environment) and have prioritized campaigning.
This should be a concern for all. The ties between Government and charities (as Ms Purves notes) have proved invariably corrupting, limiting their effectiveness and flexibility by binding them up in complex regulation and endless statistical reporting. Receiving taxpayers' money is also something of a gag. Concern was expressed earlier this year when DfID decided that any charity seeking grants from the Department would not get any funding if involved in lobbying "for or against" the DfID's activities, and if nothing else it is common intuition not to bite the hand that feeds you. But this means many informed people are being lost from public debates, nervous about offending their primary donors.
None of this should be read as a condemnation of political campaign groups though. They are an important part of our pluralist democratic society and many do fine work. It would also be ridiculous considering the TPA's status. But a distinction does need to be wrought between those 'charities' which do conventionally 'good works', and those 'campaign groups' that work to see political change. The elision of these two different groups has been detrimental to the former, and the Government's role in this should be understood and questioned further. If the state wants to see charities playing the front-line role they are best at, it should re-incentivise charitable donation by making it tax-deductible, as it is in the USA. The politicisation of charities does no one any good, and many need to return to their roots and concentrate on doing the job they were set up to do. Channeling resources towards flashy campaigns is easier, no doubt more fun, and may ultimately get you more Government funding, but the purpose of charities is to improve the lot of their fellow man (or beast) and many charities should get on with doing that.