For the last seven years, I have been in roles that provide financial or fundraising (sometimes both) support to the third sector. In that time, it’s safe to say I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. But the toughest meetings I have been in are when the head of fundraising and head of finance are placed in the same room. I have often found myself asking if they are working for the same organisation.
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Taking a stand and speaking truth to power takes some courage. When the response of those in power is an overbearing and disproportionate attempt to shut you up, you can bet it is because what you are saying is an uncomfortable truth.
So we have the chancellor, George Osborne, in his Tory party conference speech this month, calling on business to take a stand against the charity sector, as though it were some fifth column. McCarthyesque.
William Shawcross, the chair of the Charity Commission, recently stated that the 200-plus charities established since the conflict in Syria began in 2011 that say they operate in Syria are “inexperienced and potentially vulnerable to exploitation”, echoing the commission’s guidance on Syria that the public should give only to established charities.
There has been talk of how we can best incentivise more people to volunteer. In Britain we already have some of the highest levels of volunteering in the world; but efforts to increase its level from this high base will inevitably suffer from the law of diminishing returns.
Assuming that there is nevertheless a case for trying them out, what incentives might work?
The deciding factors in the Scottish referendum were all about emotion and not the rational arguments, no matter what politicians would have you believe.
Now that it is decided and the United Kingdom is still united, the experience of the campaign is a good reminder to charities that leading with the facts is not the right way to connect with and engage the public. The political noise and debate may have been all about the economy, the currency and the viability of an independent Scotland. But it all boiled down to how it made people feel.
More charities are seeking alternative ways to generate income. Gone are the days when the third sector was solely reliant on unsuspecting parties agreeing to donate “just two pounds a month”.
The government has slashed public sector spending, including the budget of local authorities. At risk of oversimplifying matters, local authorities have responded by outsourcing some of their services to charities and the private sector. Many charities have gone into public sector outsourcing blind; which in time could prove horrifically costly. Specifically, I am referring to the pension risk that can conveniently transfer to the contract-winning charity.
I believe in volunteering: both supporting it and, where possible, volunteering myself. The caveat “where possible” is important. Weeks slip away as I try to juggle work with desperate attempts to exercise, a growing stack of unread books, family demands and finding enough relaxation time to make the week manageable. Voluntary donation of time is difficult when more pressing activities dominate.
Despite these difficulties, the concept of corporate volunteering – the obligatory charity work which some employers require staff to take part in during working hours – initially left me with some reservations. Is volunteering still valid if you’re “made” to do it? I had also been exposed to criticism of the idea of corporate social responsibility, and was somewhat cynical about why a company might choose to be associated with one charity brand over another.
You could be forgiven for missing it, but this month was a big deal in the world of open data with the publication of 360 Giving’s Grant Navigator prototype. 360 Giving aims “to help UK grant makers and philanthropists to publish their grant information online in an easy-to-use way” and with their GrantNav tool they have put data about £22bn worth of grants into the public domain.
It is now possible to access the details of more than a quarter of a million different grants covering the past 20 years. You can search by funder or recipient, view some of the visualisations that are available or grab the data to play with yourself. It is, by their own admission, pretty rough and ready, but as a work in progress it offers a glimpse of the possibilities.
For some time now, the UK charity sector has been under pressure from government and from parts of the media that want to stop it speaking out. Just as the term “political correctness” is used not to highlight bureaucracy gone mad but to signpost that the speaker is about to come out with something objectionable, so “political” has become a term thrown at charities specifically to put them on the defensive.
We often read in the papers of cases where people have been accused of taking advantage of their position as “attorney”. A power of attorney is when one person is appointed by another to manage their affairs, should they not be mentally capable of doing so themselves because of illness or accident.
Just last month, in the case The Public Guardian v JW, a businessman had his power of attorney over his mother’s finances revoked after allegations of misconduct. But this case is one of many, as the courts often deal with unscrupulous characters who have used their positions as an attorney to transfer funds and assets from the person’s estate into their own name. The impact on charities? They’re losing out in cases where they had been set to inherit from the estate in a person’s will.