The truth about giving

Observations on Charity

Charity is what the rich offer the poor, isn't it? And charities are their vehicles.

But research released at the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) on 20 February shows that the social divide between rich and poor thrives in the world of giving. There's a higher density of charities based in affluent areas than economically disadvantaged ones, it has found.

Prosperous districts such as Wokingham, Surrey Heath and East Dorset have the largest number of charities per person in the UK, almost three times as many as those in poor communities such as Easington or Corby - the latter the constituency of the charities minister, Phil Hope.

Hull, one of the most deprived districts in England, has the fewest charities of all, at 0.58 per thousand.

"If there are fewer charitable activities and one takes that as a proxy for less civic engagement," says the NCVO chief executive, Stuart Etherington, "poorer communities are less able to organise themselves to make demands on the system and state."

Wealthier areas, he argues, are full of people who can help themselves, while groups in poorer districts are limited in power and capacity. Tax breaks, fundraising advantages and formal representation are denied to communities where there is a dearth of charities.

In Hull, where the collapse of the fishing industry has left a generation with low aspirations, Josephine Roper runs the charity Pooh Bear to give one-to-one reading help to children, with a staff of two. Some of the wards she serves record 35 per cent illiteracy among adults. "Lots of the children we work with come from homes where education isn't valued and there are no books," she says.

But there is less charity cash washing around Hull than Wokingham. "It's not worth fundraising around here because people don't have that kind of money to give," says Roper. Corporate donations from local businesses - a fertile income stream for charities - don't spring in a stagnant economy, she adds. She doesn't have the time or staff to fundraise anyway.

Charity experts are not surprised at the findings. "Being involved with a charity involves having spare time," says Kevin Curley, chief executive of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action. "To run a charity as a volunteer you need resources - a phone in your house, time, organising ability."

"It's also knowledge," says Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive at the Directory of Social Change. "If you come from an affluent area, you're more likely to know there are such things as charities and that you can register as one. If you're from a poorer area, it's more likely to be 'John and Mildred down the road are in trouble, their kid's into drugs, let's get together a community group'."

Many unregistered charities operate below the radar of the Charity Commission: self-help groups, residents' groups, tenants' associations, teams of mums who bus toddlers to nursery. But it's not easy - trustees of small groups can risk personal liability as well as missing out on available funds.

"You can't assume charities will be able to deal with issues of equality and social justice without the intervention of public policy," says Etherington, who believes the only solution is for the government to invest in poor areas to make voluntary action more effective.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn