Monday, 5 September 2011

Abortions, money and missions

Tomorrow the Health and Social Care Bill comes to Parliament, and an amendment to the Bill proposed by Nadine Dorries and supported by Frank Field has brought the issue of abortion rights to the top of the news.

Simon Blake, Chief Executive of Brook has written a great blog outlining some of the key issues.

There is, however, an important element to this debate that affects the broader third sector. The more one looks at these arguments, it becomes clear that Dorries, Field, and their supporters, assume the premise that not for profit providers of counseling and abortions are driven by money rather than their missions.

Take Marie Stopes. It’s a charity (number 265543). It’s vision is "A world in which every birth is wanted". Their website outlines the range of activities which they undertake around the world.

Dorries et al argue that because Marie Stopes receives money from the NHS to provide abortions, it is not fit to deliver impartial counselling as its business model relies on that income. (The same logic is applied to other providers.) The argument goes that other organisations must therefore provide that counselling.

There are many reasons why this argument should be resisted, including the fact, as Simon Blake points out, that both the counselling and the provision of abortions is heavily regulated. There is also the fact that Marie Stopes is also reimbursed for delivering counselling regardless of whether or not the client goes on to have an abortion or not.

However, a key reason to resist this argument is that charities are driven by their missions not by their income streams. To allow this amendment to pass would set a very dangerous precedent that the government believes the opposite. Charities work to build a business model which allow them to deliver their mission, not the other way around. That is the duty of charity trustees and a principle on which the whole third sector is based.

If Marie Stopes were a for-profit organisation then this argument might hold water (although personally I probably wouldn’t buy it as there would still be many imperatives including reputation management that would complicate the picture). But it’s not. It’s a charity and charities put mission before money.

Regardless of one’s views on the rights and wrongs of abortions, the sector must not let the argument that charities are driven solely by financial imperatives stick. The implications would be very serious indeed.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

BHF have missed a trick and taken the sector one step backwards

BHF have today managed to secure a remarkable amount of air time for their research into charity collections for clothes, including Today, the Times and Guardian. The publication of this research was timed to fit with the launch of a major fundraising campaign by BHF, of course a good cause. However, I don’t think this was a responsible or particularly productive thing for BHF to do.

Firstly the debate about where money from donated clothes goes and where charity income comes from has nothing whatsoever to do with effectiveness of a charity and is no proxy for comparing different charities. Many charities have no shops of their own nor any network for collecting bags from people’s homes. However, if they are able to make some money from this donation method through outsourcing to a firm which collects those bags then good for them. Clearly they have a duty to look for the best deal, but there are a lot of overheads involved in such a process.

Now you can say that the charity which does have its own shops and it’s own army of staff to collect bags are seeing 100% of the donations go to the charity. But the 100% is not all going to the charity’s mission. Some is going to the overheads of running shops and employing collection staff.

The comparisons get harder if the two charities are doing different work. If I want to give my clothes to benefit a charity which protects ducks but doesn’t have any shops, then I’m not going to be motivated to give to a charity which protects badgers just because they have their own charity shops. I might feel completely fine about say 40% of the value of my clothes going to ducks rather than say 60% which would have gone to badgers, because I don’t like badgers.

These comparisons therefore are misleading and unhelpful.

But there is a much more fundamental problem with the line which BHF have taken, that it will simply perpetuate the same old myths about charities. The overwhelming public feeling to today’s story will not be that we’d better give to BHF rather than anyone else, it will be that all charities end up being tarred with the same brush: we can’t be trusted and all the money we’re given is wasted on bureaucracy. I did a phone in on BBC Radio Sheffield this morning and this was the overwhelming sentiment from people there.

It’s nonsense for any charity to claim that all of any donation goes to the cause. And it doesn’t help anyone to encourage the public to judge us in this way. BHF are right to stress the need for transparency, but with transparency we should also be leading the debate about what is of real value when judging a charity. We should be judged on our impact and the value for money of our work, not on crude measures of inputs. what matters is how much difference did we make for the money which donors invested in us? If BHF wanted to say that they are the most worthy charity to give to then they should have championed the impact of their work, the lives they are saving, the many thousands of people for whom their support has been invaluable. After all they have a great story to tell.

Charities do and should compete for donations, and sometimes that competition will be fierce and even dirty. But as the sector grows and becomes increasingly professional we do all have a shared responsibility to treat the public with a bit more respect and start a real debate about how effective we really are, or we will all lose out.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Big Society is back where it belongs

The resignation of Nat Wei yesterday marks the end of an era of the “Big Society”, but it would be a grave mistake for the sector if we let it die.

New governments have a habit of thinking that they must reinvent the world, and only those who were close to them in the humble days before power can possibly help. For David Cameron and his close friends, this reinvention came under the banner of Big Society, an amorphous and ill-defined concept which has left many both inside his party and within the third sector cold and confused.

Part of the reason why sector leaders have been left cold and confused is down to an inherent paradox in way Big Society as a policy has been developed. For a policy which is all about empowerment and bottom-up decision making, the intellectual framework has been developed in a top-down way, by a group of people that most third sector leaders had never heard of. This group has included Nat Wei, who resigned yeaterday. His ideas have been of interest, but have never been sufficiently policy focused or practical and have never inspired the sector. As a mouthpiece for the agenda he has been a distraction.

So in spite of thinking that Big Society is broadly a good thing (as 64% of ACEVO members agree that it is), third sector leaders don’t believe that the government understands the sector (only 8% agree) or values the sector (25% agree). There has therefore been significant scepticism, or even toxicity surrounding the Big Society brand. This has been a big problem when there are so many important policy agendas for the sector bound up within it (such as giving, public service reform, social investment and volunteering).

This is now set to change. With the departure of Nat Wei, government will now need to listen to those who have real experience, knowledge and networks across the third sector. The Commission on Big Society, which ACEVO hosted and facilitated, has produced the best and most coherent set of policies which both support the clear articulation of what Big Society is about, and outlines real practical policy initiatives which can help to make it happen. The focus being placed on the work of the OCS strategic partners around implementing and measuring aspects of the Big Society will help to drive the agenda forwards too.

It is striking then that the momentum from within the sector to define Big Society in our terms and to drive that agenda forwards is peaking at a time when the Government’s enthusiasm for the brand Big Society seems to be waning. The Cabinet’s progress report after one year in office makes no mention of the phrase. Number 10's poor handling of the anniversary of Big Society this Monday has been derided by the media as just another re-launch, further devaluing the brand. The PM failed to articulate the progress which the government has made on the agenda. Instead he yet again talked about it in brand and all-encompassing terms, and therefore also detracted from the firm commitments in the giving white paper launched on the same day.

So we’ve become the life support for Big Society, and that is as it should be. This is an agenda of the third sector and it is right that we lead the debate. However it is impetrate that we don’t let it die because the current policy alternatives would be much worse for the sector and for our beneficiaries.

If the Tory party abandon Big Society then there would be very little to check the fervour of deficit reduction, resulting in less focus on involving the third sector in public service reform but instead pushing wide-scale privatisation and an expectation that philanthropy will step-in as the state withdraws. Similarly if Big Society disappears as an agenda then the dinosaurs on the left of the Labour Party will have free reign to promote statist solutions. Either of these would be a big step back for our sector.

All this was foreseeable. President Bush Jnr made the same mistakes when he took over in 2001, ignoring the established non profit players and talking only to his mates, mainly from within faith communities. However after a year of lots of talking and no progress he realised that to deliver on his social policies he needed the non profit sector as a partner.

We now must be those agents of delivery in partnership with government to realise the best of the Big Society. There is too much at stake for us to let allow the government’s incompetence in explaining and promoting Big Society be an excuse for its demise.