Sweet charity or ‘squeezed fiddle’?

10 Apr

Wonklifebalance has heard it all now.  When the head of ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) on Newsnight refers to the latest Government scheme to raise revenue as something he thought at first was ‘an honest mistake’, but in the cold light of unfolding headlines has realised is anything but, then perhaps we should all get our coats.

As a jobbing policy analyst, Wonklifebalance knows her way around a charitable organisation or two – want to bring together academic thought, innovative practice, half-decent communications and getting to meet someone who might actually be able to do something? – bring on the long unsung, much misunderstood voluntary sector.

So what’s George Osborne got to do with it this time?  In his ‘shock’ at the tax avoidance scams of the super-rich he has decided that charitable giving is a dodge on a par with any other loophole in the tax system that your average six-figure-plus earning grandee might wish to employ.  He has decided to cap tax relief on large donations to charity. Why does this matter?  A) because the government has stated (without naming and shaming) that ‘some’ charities are a front for tax avoidance and are not achieving anything substantial in the wider world; B) because donors are already saying that the changes mean they may not be able to promise the amounts of money they have pledged and forecast to major charities C) because the ‘Big Society’ is supposed to rest on the ability of charities to innovate and respond to local need with sustainable revenue streams D) because Government cuts to the voluntary sector are already  major, and the answer is ‘diversifying sources of income’ – i.e. getting more private sources to donate.  How can this be achieved with the current mixed message around philanthropy?  ‘Give – but only up to a certain point’? For the charities still left standing from the cuts of 2010/11 this is a tough message indeed.

If you look through A-D above, the effect of Government announcements is to discredit and besmirch the reputation of an entire sector:  to say ‘some’ charities are not operating charitably is to imply that the legal requirements of the voluntary sector are not being observed – this is a serious charge which cannot be left to vague assertions without damaging the sector.  And donors, who wish simply to give to a cause which they support are likely to be deterred. To cap the major donations of the biggest donors will undoubtedly cause cashflow problems for the ‘big beasts’ of the sector – and we’re not talking a few less parties, or reduced bonuses:  we’re talking about making progress in cancer research slower, or making the fight against global inequalities harder.  Charities do not operate to line pockets: they operate where other organisations cannot efficiently or effectively tread.  Never mind the big fish, in the charity pond you will find the bodies funded to house the most vulnerable, support the least visible carers, campaign on the issues you haven’t heard of yet.  Stop giving here and it’s not just the Big Society that’s in peril, it’s the future of small, everyday lives that are impoverished.  The radical take on charities is that they are all set up for their own abolition:  solve the identified problem and they will cease to exist.  Pity that the Coalition government’s take seems to be to eviscerate the sector while the problems grow and eat us all from the inside first.

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