This article was first published on The Times website on Monday 15 June 2020.
The pandemic has merely reinforced the fundamental challenges charities face rather than changed them.
As if dealing with the impact of coronavirus were not enough charities, like the rest of society, are having to plan for the future amid a climate of continuing uncertainty. Doing this properly means reflecting on what the pandemic has revealed about the state of charity in our country. It requires an honest assessment both about the many grounds for optimism and the causes for concern.
The coronavirus has once again brought out this nation's seemingly limitless capacity for generosity. Our charitable impulse runs as deep as it ever has, crossing traditional dividing lines. People have found new and ingenious ways to demonstrate kindness, salute courage and lend practical help to one another. We can and should take pride in this. Charity has the power to unite and inspire us precisely because it continues to evolve, using the new possibilities of our age to meet its most unexpected challenges.
The world today is less prone to see charity just as a set of institutions. It is about translating motives into action and going about the job in the right way while you're at it. Our own research among the public backs this up. Standards in terms of behaviour, efficiency and effectiveness are more important than structures. Charities aren’t seen as the only outlet for charitable endeavour, but people do feel entitled to make certain assumptions about registered charities that go beyond their sticking to the letter of the law. Meeting these expectations is crucial to building and maintaining public trust and confidence in charities as the country emerges from the current crisis.
Of course the pandemic has shown specialist charities at their best, playing a vital role in helping to tackle coronavirus directly or taking on other important responsibilities so that others might do so. The demands on charities like these have never been greater particularly when it comes to delivering public services. Central and local government are attracted to giving charities a greater role because of the sense of mission, independence and trust they bring. The challenge here is to preserve those qualities which mark charities out even as some are called upon to deliver more public services.
But if the pandemic has demonstrated that the spirit of charity is alive and well it has also revealed just how dependent it is on the support of the public. Economic uncertainty has hit donations. Lockdown has disrupted routines that included helping charities in small and myriad ways. The essential fragility of much of the charitable sector has been exposed. Many charities have had to curtail their work and some have had to shut down altogether.
Some see a natural bifurcation in the charitable sector developing over time. On one side, a small number of those more corporate charities who operate a top-down, professional business model to deliver public sector contracts or act as part of the state. On the other, the vast majority of smaller charities who work in more informal, bottom-up, ways filling gaps and responding to need where they see it.
But the truth is whether large or small, staffed by professionals or volunteers, global or local in focus, all charities are united by the public expectations and the financial and legal advantages which come with their special status. Ensuring expectations are being met so that those advantages continue to enjoy public support only becomes more important when the range of bodies seeking to call themselves charities increases, and the scope of their activity grows.
Regulating in this environment is not just about finding the most practical way of overseeing the registered charities we have. The charity sector needs to embrace a new generation of organisations with their own ideas for strengthening their communities and wider society. The charity register should not be like a private members club; difficult to join but offering a place for life once you get in. Instead it should be a snapshot that captures the vast array of efforts being made in this country to improve lives and strengthen society at any given time. The Charity Commission will be better equipped to do this if we look again at how we make acquiring registered status possible, as well as what we can do to deprive the wrongdoers and moribund of the status once they have it.
As we return to normality by degrees it is better that we do so with a clear-eyed understanding of where charity stands rather than falling back on wishful thinking. The brightest future lies with those causes and organisations who understand and respect what charity means in the hearts and minds of the public and are prepared to stand behind the difference they make but also the way in which they make it.
We can't just draw conclusions from the pandemic which provide us with the most comfort, we have to learn the right lessons. A thriving charity sector depends on it.