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Charity matters, and Social Science about Charity Matters too

In this article Beth Breeze and John Mohan discuss the importance of charity in light of a recent report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities.

Our book ‘The Logic of Charity’ steals its subtitle from Charles Dickens: ‘Great Expectations in Hard Times’. We are referring to the difficulty of funding and running voluntary initiatives during a period of austerity when demand for charitable help is increasing at the same time as public spending is being slashed and ordinary donors are struggling to dig deeper. The impact of this double whammy (of increased need and reduced funding) is exacerbated further by widespread misunderstandings and misconceptions about the contemporary role of charitable activity in society. Proposals to rely more extensively on charitable activity require a stronger evidence base that explains what charity is, how it operates and who it benefits. This is what our slim, data-packed book delivers.

A newly released report ‘Stronger charities for a stronger society’, published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities, endorses our view that charity is a consistent feature of life in the UK that deserves greater scrutiny and understanding.  The Lords report, which emphasises the crucial role of charity as ‘the eyes, ears and conscience of society’, has been warmly welcomed by charity leaders across the UK.  It contains 100 conclusions and recommendations designed to help charities respond to diverse pressures resulting from economic, social and technological change, with the overall goal of enabling charities to have greater confidence in successfully achieving their missions.

But what constitutes a charitable mission? The word ‘charity’ brings to mind images of people with needs being helped by people with wealth. Our research highlights many errors in this hierarchical depiction. In reality, the distribution of charitable resources is complex and concentrated on certain causes and in certain geographical areas in ways that are not closely aligned with the pattern of need. Because a defining feature of philanthropy is that money is given voluntarily, unlike taxation, and because charitable choices are shaped by personal preferences, experiences and encounters, we show that current efforts to stimulate philanthropy are unlikely to result in a closer match between charitable demand and supply. In short, if donors feel more motivated to support distressed donkeys than the victims of domestic violence then they are free to do so, as both pass the ‘public benefit’ test introduced in the Charities Act 2006.

So should politicians do more, not just to stimulate giving through tax reliefs and other incentives, but also to attempt to influence the distribution of donations? Whilst the new Lords report steers carefully away from offering any opinion on the ‘worthiness’ or otherwise of different types of charitable activity, we note that politicians from both sides of the political spectrum have long had a complicated relationship with charity. A reductionist summary suggests that Labour governments have (until relatively recently) typically been suspicious of charities because of concerns they might undermine a universal, tax-funded welfare state, whilst Conservatives have often held overly-hopeful assumptions about the capacities of charities, encapsulated in David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric. Yet our research identifies a ‘logic of charity’ that is at odds with the perspective held by politicians on both the left and the right.

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 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.

The Lords report has plenty to say on improving structural factors, with recommendations for more guidelines and support in a range of areas from inducting trustees to managing volunteers. But of course the charitable impulse is not solely dependent on structural factors – it’s about people, and in particular the relationship between potential donors and fundraisers; the Lords Inquiry had almost nothing to say on these topics, nor about the generally-static levels of charitable giving, or the prospects for increasing them.

The Lords report does an excellent job in reminding us of the importance of charitable organizations, whose work ‘touches almost every facet of British civic life’. 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 uneven geographic distribution of resources across communities and the inherently individualistic nature of philanthropic giving decisions. We therefore need an intelligent and evidence-based debate about the realism of the great expectations we hold of charity in these austere times.

John Mohan is Director of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Beth Breeze is Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent, UK.