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Charity isn’t ‘gentle’ - it’s messy, hard, difficult and painful.

Four weeks ago we started lobbying the Government for the help that only it can provide at the scale the sector needs to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are not left to shoulder the greatest burden in this crisis. Yesterday Rishi Sunak announced an unprecedented, grant-based, injection of cash into the sector. I was asked immediately for my reaction; was I pleased or disappointed? For me, the answer is not binary and I have wrestled with it all night.

I hope this blog will make sense of my thoughts.

I am delighted with what has been given. I am disappointed at what has not. I am frustrated that many of the fundamental points have been missed. I’m angry that we have been made to jump through hoops to show why charity should be supported when the same has not been asked of business. I am disheartened by the lack of joined up thinking. I am relieved for those for whom this is the lifeline they needed so desperately. I am a pragmatist and I know how politics works. I am far from able to give a simple response for how I ‘feel’.

For me, the last four weeks have simultaneously highlighted everything that is good and bad about charity and its relationship with Government, with the other sectors and with the public.

Firstly the good; the rich patchwork of organisations and individual endeavour rose to the challenges thrown up by Covid19. Communities rallied together to support each other. Huge numbers responded to the NHS’s cry for volunteers. The public in its most financially uncertain times thrust its hands deep in its pockets and gave millions of pounds to the National Emergency Trust (and many other calls for support). Celebrities and those of independent wealth gave and Foundations got their tone just right. Politicians of all parties came together across divides in order to support the work done by social change organisations. And the PM, Leader of the House and Chancellor all applauded the vital work undertaken by our sector as part of what makes Britain great. Fantastic.

Undoubtedly for those who will benefit from the funds announced yesterday this money is most welcome. For the Hospice movement that secured £200m support over the 12 weeks, I am delighted. For the small charities who can access the grants, whether through their local authority, community foundation or the National Lottery Community Fund I sigh in relief that they will be in a better place than before. All of that makes me glad and extremely grateful.

So the bad; There is a persistent central error when we speak of ‘the sector’ - as if it is a movement which has homogenous needs, operations, good bits and flaws. A sector that acts and reacts in a single way to every situation. But it does not. There is no single product like an airline, or single business model like a pub. The only thing that ties this many and varied landscape of organisations together, from the very small to the mammoth, is the desire to change the world positively. Charity encompasses the tiny and entirely voluntary to the largest and most business-like of operations and everything in between. There is no single business model. There is no single product or service.

To put into context - Rishi Sunak focussed on our small and vital charities. They make up the lion’s share of the sector by the quantity of organisations. Yet just 1.3% of this sector, those over £5m turnover, makes up over 70% of its income. This injection of cash understandably will have a disproportionate impact on the smaller charities than it will for the giants. If it were about saving ‘the sector’ this was a brilliant move. But it’s not - it’s about saving lives. In the context of the biggest players, the Alzheimer’s, The Scouts and the NSPCC’s of the world, these measures don’t touch the sides.

For many years we have battled with the contradictions that ‘charity’ inherently brings. That we should be small and voluntary yet be able to operate at scale and without waste or duplication. That we should innovate but not fail. That we should not rely on the state or ‘handouts’ but we should also not ask the public too much, flood the high streets with shops or generate our income through things that don’t ‘look’ like charity. That charity should be done without pay but also executed with skill and professionalism that comes at a price. That we should be financially resilient and have enough reserves to survive a rainy day but not sit on too much when it should be changing our beneficiaries’ lives.

I was delighted to hear the chancellor speak so passionately about the role we play. Overjoyed that he didn’t just acknowledge the work in response to COVID19 but the importance of charitable activities for struggles being fought irrespective of this pandemic. But thought the use of the word ‘gentleness’ spoke volumes. Language is important. Charity isn’t gentle. It’s messy and hard and difficult and painful. He also said that he couldn’t guarantee he could save every job. I agree. But that isn’t the point - it never has been. It’s not about charity jobs. It’s about the people we serve. It’s not about preserving the institution of charity so it can carry on after this crisis has passed. It’s about ensuring that the marginalised, the vulnerable the bits of society that are unseen and unsupported by all but charities, do not carry the greatest burden.

And this is where the fight must continue. We must work to ensure that the funds made available are distributed to those most in need. That inequality in society is not deepened by this crisis. We must help strike a balance between responding to this virus and making sure that we still have vital services for people in need in the future. COVID19 cannot be allowed to entirely crowd out longer-term considerations or funding for otherwise vital activity - however pressing the immediate need is.

We must press for the schemes designed for business to work for charity. That means continuing to demand amendments to the job retention scheme so that charities are not perversely incentivised to mothball when they should be mobilising. We need to strive to engender a greater understanding of the space in which charities operate - we cannot continue to be forced to operate within the language of market forces.

Some closing thoughts;

For those who say - why don’t you take a pay cut and reduce overheads? We know that significant numbers have already done so, without being asked. Can we also make that rule apply to the Tim Martins of this world if it is to be a determinant in whether public money should be used? We operate under a legal obligation to deliver public benefit after all. Not just private benefit and now is not the time for cheap point-scoring.

For those who say - large charities are bloated and could do with being leaner - yes I am sure there are charities who are inefficient and could do with being trimmed down. The irony is that those with the most stand the greatest chance of survival! So the ones you penalise are the ones already running a tight ship if you apply this logic.

For those who say – you are ungrateful and nothing is ever good enough. I am grateful. This is an excellent start. But when the conservative estimate on loss (measured against business as usual predictions) and leaving out a number of charities who might not be seen as such by all (private schools, hospitals, churches) is over £4bn over a 12 week period and the ‘settlement’ is less than 20% of that; then I think it is my job to highlight the gap too. These positions are not mutually exclusive – I can be both grateful for what’s been given and point out that ‘whatever it takes’ rings a bit hollow.

For those of you who say you already have these other schemes - please recognise that the schemes launched to date have all been designed with business in mind. For example; The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme is unclear around trading and may not be applicable for many. The Job Retention Scheme doesn’t work well in a non-business context - because demand has gone up and/or staff may be redeployed making furloughing the wrong answer.

My pragmatic plea to charities is - this is not a lot of money to go around a great deal of need. Please assess the financial resilience of your charity closely. Please avail yourself of every part of the Government schemes and let us know when they don’t work for you. I know you are using your reserves, cutting costs and innovating. I know that your rainy-day funds were never designed to withstand a hurricane. We need to collaborate and work together now more than ever and not allow ourselves to be set against each other. Don’t throw each other under the proverbial bus but equally be sensitive that these are unprecedented times and we won’t all make it through.

It’s not about us. It’s about them – our beneficiaries. Please keep that front and central in your thinking.

So having slept on the question - am I disappointed or delighted? My answer is both.

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