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21 January 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:58pm

Charity in a time of austerity: great expectations in hard times

The charitable sector faces ever greater pressures in a time of fiscal restraint.

By Beth Breeze and John Mohan

The left has long had a prickly relationship with charitable activity, from Clement Attlee’s denunciation of charity as “a cold, grey, loveless thing”, to more recent Labour leaders’ reluctance to defend tax breaks for charitable donors.

The essence of the Left’s case against charity is that it encourages a belief that private initiative and self-help can provide public goods and thus undermines support for state-organised and tax-funded welfare. From this perspective reliance on charitable endeavour is inevitably associated with inadequate and inequitable provision. George Lansbury said he would not accept ‘charity as a substitute for social justice,’ while the NHS was intended to overcome the inherent weaknesses of what Nye Bevan called ‘the caprice of charity’. David Cameron’s repeated – if oft ridiculed – belief in a ‘Big Society’ with an expanded role for charitable activity, has reinforced the view that the public sector and the charity sector are substitutes rather than complements.

But how fair are the charges against charity? And what positive role can charity play in a modern, social democratic society?

From our studies into the nature of charity and its distributional consequences, we find a ‘logic of charity’ that is at odds with the perspective held by politicians on both the left and the right.

It is easiest to challenge the Conservatives’ hopeful assumptions about the capacities of charities. Our research highlights the uneven distribution of charitable resources across both geography and causes – though with more complex origins and drivers than advanced in the ‘charity desert’ thesis beloved of the Centre for Social Justice. A reliance on charity to fill gaps left by public spending cuts would likely result in the aggravation of disadvantage in communities of both place and purpose. The supply of charity is not a matter of simply switching a tap on or off as the state advances or retreats. Indeed in some places and for some less popular needs, the tank is already dry – not because (as CSJ would argue) of a lack of voluntary effort in poorer communities, where informal and mutual aid has always been plentiful, but because the knowledge, time and resources required to run registered charitable organisations are in short supply. Frank Prochaska argued in a recent lecture to the Charity Commission that “we are always with the poor”, but the distribution of charities and of philanthropic resources suggests otherwise.

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Of course, the charitable impulse is not solely dependent on structural factors. Our studies of charitable intermediaries – notably fundraisers – find that they can succeed in raising significant sums and generating a ‘warm glow’ for donors by building meaningful relationships between causes and supporters. Part of the answer to last summer’s furore over fundraising techniques demands a shift from transactional to relationship fundraising: less mass mailings and more one-to-one conversations. Yet that is obviously a much more expensive approach, so could result in fundraisers ceasing to approach those who will never be able to give significant sums.

Does that matter, so long as good causes still get the funding they need? Yes, according to an important – if outnumbered – view on the left that sees participation in gift giving as an individual right and essential for a healthy society. Richard Titmuss’ famous argument in favour of a voluntary (rather than marketised) national blood service notes how few opportunities exist in modern, technical, large-scale organised societies for ordinary people to act altruistically outside their own networks of family and friends. The importance of creating and supporting structures that enable citizens to meet the needs of strangers recalls Sidney Webb‘s argument that the foundations of British socialism do not lie with Karl Marx but rather with Robert Owen, who preached not ‘class war’ but emphasised “the hope, the faith and the living fact of human fellowship”.  It is this role, as an enabler of altruism, that provides a rationale for charity that the left can and should support.

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Such arguments highlight the benefits to donors, but what of the recipients? The inevitable inconsistency of charitably-organised services was a concern of John Stuart Mill. He clearly advocated that individuals who could not provide for themselves should be supported by ‘systematic arrangements’ organised by the state, not helped ‘uncertainly and casually’ by fellow citizens. But setting the question in those terms precludes the possibility of a happy co-existence of philanthropic and state provision. Mill’s dilemma was addressed by William Beveridge who argued that charities would still be needed in the post-war welfare state because they “pioneer ahead of the state and make experiments”, and because they do things that the state should not, will not do and cannot do. Who, when calling the Samaritans would prefer the phone to be picked up by a salaried civil servant rather than an empathic volunteer?

This importance of a shared understanding borne of common life experiences is not well understood by those politicians who seek to harness charity in support of their political programmes. Donors respond to the needs they recognise and relate to, rather than to the most objectively ‘needy’ or under-funded cause. For example, we support research into illness that affects our loved ones rather than funding the most promising medical advances, and we prioritise donkey welfare over domestic violence because we’re animal lovers and other issues, however worthy, are not personally salient. The predominance of ‘taste-based’ over ‘needs-based’ giving means philanthropy can never be relied on to fill the gaps created by public spending cuts.

Charity is a consistent and important feature of life in the UK. Its importance extends beyond immediate recipients to include all those who benefit from living in a society that provides opportunities to help unknown others beyond tax-transfers. Yet the logic of charity cannot result in a proportionate matching of needs and resources, regardless of the hopes of politicians. And that situation is not likely to change given the popularity and ongoing need for charity, coupled with the uneven geographic distribution of resources across communities and the inherently individualistic nature of philanthropic giving decisions. We need an intelligent debate about the realism of the great expectations we hold of charity in these austere times. 

Beth Breeze is director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. John Mohan is director of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham

The Logic of Charity: Great Expectations in Hard Times, is published by Palgrave