Charitable activity in the UK: are we missing what really counts?
Alongside my monthly direct debit to Cancer Research, the last charitable contribution I remember making was dropping a handful of loose change into the collection pot of a Shelter representative.
I started to wonder whether such donations are now less frequent in the current economic climate and how charities are coping during what must have been a period of profound change for the sector.
The Voluntary Sector Cuts website, collaboration between 25 voluntary sector organisations, is one way for voluntary organisations to share their experience of public spending cuts. Launched in January 2011, by January 2012, 509 cuts had been reported on the site, with a value of over £77 million.
With social problems worsening after a period of economic difficulty, charities remain at the forefront of addressing these issues and their more hidden dimensions like family debt and breakdown.
It is striking that not only have these organisations pioneered increasingly innovative and imaginative ways of capturing public attention and donations, they have done this with much less money. Think about one of the most memorable campaigns this year: Vinnie Jones’ humorous instruction of hands free CPR for the British Heart Foundation.
In light of this, perhaps a study that allows us to champion the most innovative of these organisations while ensuring policy makers are informed with accurate data has never been more necessary.
Innovation in Giving
Nesta already practically supports social action and charitable organisations. As manager of the Innovation in Giving Fund we invest in, support and grow innovative ideas that bring about a step change in levels of giving and exchange which have a credible route to being self-sustaining in the long term.
So far over £10 million has been invested into new forms of charitable giving to projects such as ‘I Reach’, connecting charities to talented individuals who want to donate their time, and The Amazings, enabling older community members to share their valuable knowledge.
This has contributed to research into specific elements of the social economy – like reciprocal exchange systems and complementary currencies – but we have yet to look at undertaking any analysis of this sector as it is bound to be controversial.
What should we call it for a start? Few if any issues cause so much disagreement among this diverse universe of organisations often referred to as ‘voluntary’, ‘not for profit ’ , ‘social economic’ or ‘ charitable’. For some people there isn’t even such a thing as a sector: their world is just too diverse. For others, a focus on organisations ignores the individual or collective action that has always taken place in the public sphere.
To answer this question, perhaps I need to broaden my perceptions of what constitutes giving to a charitable organisation. Making a monthly donation to a long established stalwart of the charitable community may be too rigid an understanding. Although typical ‘voluntary’ organisations are still at the core of this sector, recent years have seen the continued blurring of the boundaries between society, the state and the market.
This may be most evident in the hybrid development of ‘Social enterprises’. These deliver services to make a profit but their social and environmental goals are just as important as their financial ones. Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen is a well-known example. When these structures look set to become significant parts of this landscape, is it still appropriate to include them in a sector traditionally termed ‘not for profit’?
Below the radar
I began to consider other more informal types of giving or improving I had observed in my local community. The knitting club in the village hall, the local Islamic prayer meeting, the children’s play group in my district hospital. Just because these methods of helping (often marginalised) societal groups do not qualify for a particular list or register, should we ignore their contribution to society and indeed innovation?
Current thinking suggests it would be foolish to do so; according to the Third Sector Research Centre, so called ‘below the radar’ activities such as these make up around 70% of the sector.
This raises a myriad of further questions: What is the role and function of below the radar groups and how do they operate? What are the motivations of those involved in these groups and activities? What is the impact of more informal community action and organising?
If you can think of any examples of innovative, informal or unusual ways of making a charitable contribution, do let us know.