Wednesday, 24 February 2010

When Charity and Politics Collide

Christine Pratt thrust herself into the limelight on Sunday afternoon and in the process all but destroyed her charity, brought the confidentiality of help lines into question and raised questions about the role of charities in political debate.

Whatever one makes of her motivation to speak out, I think that there are a couple of interesting lessons for third sector leaders.

ACEVO has for many years campaigned for greater clarity and more flexibility in the rules about charity involvement in public policy. The sector’s campaigning role has come into question again in recent weeks as a result Oliver Letwin’s recent comments at the NCVO campaigning conference and extra guidance issued by the Charity Commission ahead of the general election. I hope that sector leaders are not any more reluctant to become involved in the political process as a result of the backlash against Pratt. They shouldn’t because Pratt did a great deal wrong.

The website of the National Bullying Helpline contains quotes of endorsement from David Cameron and other prominent Tories. Her board was comprised of other local Tory activists and the office was two doors away from the local branch of the Conservative party. I don’t for a second believe that her actions were part of a coordinated Tory plot, but for anyone like me who spent two minutes on Monday morning checking out the NBH website alarm bells were ringing.

A huge number of charities involve politicians in trying to promote their work and help to influence the development of policy. This is absolutely appropriate. But that involvement must not be partisan, and in this world appearance is as important as reality. It was very foolish for the charity not to seek and demonstrate cross party support for its work (it’s hardly a controversial topic after all). Whether or not the charity had inappropriate party political links its reputation and credibility are now destroyed.

The second lesson concerns her decision to put political activity ahead of the confidentiality and interests of her clients. The organisation’s objectives as displayed on the charity commission website are “the preservation and protection of good health of those affected by bulling in the workplace and other environments.”

Political campaigning is only allowed and indeed only appropriate when it helps to further the objectives of the charity and is in the interests of its beneficiaries. In her case Pratt has directly sacrificed the interests of her beneficiaries to give herself a platform. That is the cardinal sin of a third sector leader. I wrote a few weeks ago about how our first principle must always be the interests of our beneficiaries.

Sector leaders shouldn’t be afraid to become involved in political debate. They just need to avoid the mistakes of appearing partisan and ignoring their beneficiaries. Neither should be hard.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Optimistic Ask

In Norwich today on the fifth leg of our Big Ask tour. We are going round the country asking members their views on what support they would like from ACEVO both in terms of our lobbying of the next government and the services we provide to chief executives. Turnout at these meeting has been great and members, as always, have been full of constructive and practical ideas about how we tackle the challenges ahead.

One particularly striking thing at each of these meetings has been the proportion of members who say that they are optimistic about the future versus those who say that they are pessimistic. Almost everyone has said that they are optimistic about the future for our sector in spite of the tough times we know we have ahead.

This mood strikes me as being in sharp contrast to much of the rhetoric in the sector at the moment, but is I think entirely appropriate. As a sector we do have the potential to provide the solutions to many of the problems which the country is facing. We can deliver better more personalised and more cost effective service which help to bring and hold communities together. We can provide a voice for the disempowered and support people to contribute to the maximum of their potential. The question is whether we can articulate our offer in a way which makes us “irresistible” to government, and makes them sit up and take note.

It’s all to do with how we position our sector, and we as umbrella bodies have a key role in that. We must avoid presenting ourselves as yet another victim of the recession needing to be propped up by handouts. We must position ourselves as providing the answers to the problems which the country faces and demonstrate the value we bring to justify the necessary investment. We must provide commissioners with solutions to help them to make the brave choices they need to make in order to redesign the way services are delivered.

Some of this is of course about us getting better at collecting and presenting evidence of the impact which we make. But a great deal of it is about attitude. The biggest thrill in my job is working with chief executives who are committed to delivering solutions not problems and I am proud to play my part in representing them.

Friday, 12 February 2010

"Are you a charity or a social enterprise?"

“Are you a charity or a social enterprise?” This question was asked by a consultant to an ACEVO member at a meeting this morning. I think our member was a little surprised and wasn’t quite sure how to answer.

I feel his pain. Social enterprise as a distinct concept has rocketed up the consciousness of policy makers in recent years and many (including Francis Maude at the SOLACE annual dinner last week) refer obliquely to “the third sector and social enterprise”. How useful is this distinction in terms of promoting the role of the broader non profit sector?

There is no clear definition of social enterprise as a noun. There are of course some specific legal forms which social enterprises can take (CICs for example) but to restrict the social enterprise movement to only those organisations would exclude many which are trading for a social purpose.

A better question to our member might have been “do you do charity or social enterprise?”. The term makes more sense as a verb. Trading is a vital part of the funding mix for many organisations in the sector. According to the NCVO almanac earned income was responsible for 51.2% of the sector’s total income in 2006-7. ACEVO’s income generation team supports organisations in diversifying their income streams and the development of trading is key.

But as a verb social enterprise is nothing new. Charities have been trading for centuries and earned income has been a major source of income for particularly smaller organisations.

So if it is not a noun, and as an activity it is nothing new, what is the relevance of the distinction? I suspect in asking the question our consultant friend was trying to gauge the mindset of the organisation in question. Social enterprise can be associated with being professional and innovative, operating in complex markets and delivering products and services which compete with providers from any sector. This is distinct therefore from traditional charity based on voluntary principles, donations and non marketable interventions.

This is an interesting distinction but many organisations which would never think of themselves as social enterprises would tick all the boxes of being professional, innovative and delivering market based products or services. These qualities are not unique to social enterprises.

This matters because many of the challenges which the sector faces are common to those organisations which class themselves as social enterprises and those which don’t. The quality of the interventions which we can bring are equally high.

There is a spectrum on which third sector organisations sit – some which do a lot of trading may have more social-enterprise-like characteristics - but it is not a polarity. Categorising social enterprise as something other than the rest of the third sector is unhelpful because with common challenges to meet we are best placed meeting them with a shared voice.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

First Principles

Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has written in her most recent blog about her and Kevin Curley’s meeting with the Charity Commission on the issue of charities being involved in the running of prisons.

Kevin has made his views on the issue very clear. He set up the “charities must not run prisons group” on facebook (which now has 157 members; including Andy Benson from NCIA) and tweeted on the issue frequently last August (@kevincurley).

I profoundly disagree with these objections which fundamentally boil down to the running of prisons not being the sort of thing which Frances and Kevin feel charities should do. Frances talks of it being “immoral” and cites situations where charities may have to be involved in making difficult decisions about punishment regimes.

Others have responded to these points well (including my colleague Peter Kyle on Crook’s blog last August). Charities have to make difficult decisions every day about the best ways to help their beneficiaries, sometimes compromising short term comfort for long term outcomes. We live in the real world and the best organisations understand how to operate within that real world to bring out the best long term results.

These divergent views are one illustration of a fundamental schism in the sector which is becoming increasingly apparent to me. On a number of issues, such as whether we should pay trustees, whether we should deliver more public services, and how we should present ourselves to the public, there is a polarity between those who approach from the point of view of what charities should look and feel like, including the experience of those who work and volunteer within those organisations, and those who approach from the point of view of what will generate the best outcomes for beneficiaries.

Now I understand that this is a crude distinction. These things are often related and that they are both important. However, I do think this is a helpful distinction because it forces us to refine our first principles when making judgements about how our sector should develop.

Taking a few of those salient issues, my approach to addressing them starts with the question "what’s the best thing for the beneficiaries?" I believe that charities should be able to pay trustees if they want to in order to get the best people on their board to make the best decisions to drive the best outcomes. I believe that charities should get involved in bidding for government contracts if it allows them to better meet the needs of those they were set up to serve. I believe that charities should be able to have a role in running prisons if they will be able to better rehabilitate offenders as a result.

The counter arguments sound to me like they prioritise norms about the sectors character. Charities should not be allowed to pay trustees because our heritage is voluntary and that we should be distinct from the private sector. Charities should be wary of becoming involved in public service delivery because it may jeopardise our independence. Charities should not be involved in running prisons because it might mean that they have to make difficult and unpalatable choices.

So what is more important: what the sector looks like or how well we deliver for those who need us? What are your first principles?