The past few days have been a puzzling and somewhat enraging time to be a charity leader. Despite one of the most unanimous voluntary sector lobbying campaigns I’ve known in my career, the coalition government has still seen fit to pass into law the deeply undemocratic provisions of Clause 2 of the Lobbying and Transparency Bill.
The bill will create an unwieldy, ill-defined panoply of bureaucratic restrictions on the activities of non-political organisations, including charities, during the run-up to the forthcoming general election. To me, the passing of the bill felt like a dark day for this sector’s powerful tradition of passionate campaigning on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged, invisible and politically unpopular children and families.
No sooner had I caught my breath than I read how William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, had yet more rather sweeping criticisms to make. Having already gone public last year over some charity chief executives being paid too much, and some of our organisations potentially being a fertile cover for terrorism and corruption, this time the ‘problem’ he sees with charities is that we don’t defend ourselves very well when people – including, we must assume, him – publicly criticise us. Ironic indeed to be told that we should defend ourselves better on the same day that a huge collective endeavour to do just that fell on stubbornly deaf ears.
The real puzzle is trying to comprehend what the problem really is with charities. Those who have drafted the sweeping provisions of the lobbying bill, and vigorously defended them from meaningful amendment, clearly feel this is necessary in some way to solve a problem. Likewise, Shawcross clearly feels strongly that there are real problems that he is trying to confront. I certainly don’t think that the charity sector is, or should ever be, beyond criticism, and if I could hear a clear articulation of why there is a problem with charities – with the ways we behave, the services we run, the voices we raise, the issues we address – then I would genuinely like to absorb and grapple with them. But these announcements seem unconnected to any real or well-defined problem.
My design teacher always used to say that 90 per cent of designing a solution is accurately defining the problem. That if you don’t get that right, you only create new problems. I found myself thinking of him a lot this week.
Kathy Evans is chief executive of Children England