Belief in the sanctity and essentially paternalistic relations of charitable giving seems to have become almost a conditioned reflex for the public. When Lawrence Clark, disability activist and “sit-down comedian”, rattled a tin labelled: ‘Pay off my mortgage or I’ll kill the puppies,’ passersby gave him money. When members of Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People offered the public small change to pay the postage to lobby their MPs over disability rights, some people’s reaction was to try to give them money. Perhaps this helps explain the confused response we’ve seen to the government’s recent efforts to restrict tax relief to super-rich givers.
The charity tax relief cap has highlighted that the most effective campaign the big voluntary organisations have fought recently has been for their financial self-preservation. Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, came out guns blazing to attack the government’s policy. The great and the good have been powerfully enlisted.
The resulting U-turn has shown just what muscle big charity has. Yet there’s been no similar success against the swingeing attacks on disabled people made in the name of “welfare reform”. Perhaps most important, it hasn’t been big charity that has been leading efforts to resist political attacks on the most vulnerable people. The pressure, both on the Lords and beyond, has come mainly from disabled people and service users (often unfunded and unsupported) and their organisations (usually working with minimal resources). The new generation of user-led, black and minority ethnic, and community-based organisations are the true face of 21st-century voluntarism and mutuality.
Big charities have become increasingly tied into complex relations with government, as service providers, advisers and contract bidders. This makes their traditional role as advocates for marginalised and disempowered people much more difficult to maintain.
There seems to be a growing divide between small charitable organisations – with little profile but high energy, real street credibility and beneficiary involvement – and the traditional large organisations – with big reserves, highly paid chief executives and expensive central London headquarters. Research supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that smaller charities often experience the high visibility and large resources of big charitable organisations as barriers in the way of their own development, as these larger organisations are able to command most of the limited resources available.
One thing we can expect is that very little of the money that may come from the super-rich is ever likely to find its way into the accounts of these new grassroots voluntary organisations. But there again, perhaps they wouldn’t want it. Any alliance between charity and the growing numbers of tax-avoiding super-rich created by growing social, political and economic inequality is likely to be an unholy one. Hopefully the forthcoming consultation over charity tax relief will encourage debate. It may help to act as a wake up call for big charities, reminding them what their first allegiances are meant to be.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010