This week I began a guest post over at BeGoodBeSocial like this:
Being a charity is tough right now. If the effects of stautory cuts weren’t enough, we’re criticised by some quarters for being over-reliant on a Government spoon in the first place; you deserve it, you’re a hidden tax, you’re a pawn and a fraud they say. We sometimes hear that charity workers shouldn’t take a decent salary home, and that volunteers should (and, erm, can) perform [some of] the specialist roles that non-profits encompass (you know, the ones that prop up public services).
I promise that blog gets more optimistic! But I wrote these lines a few hours after hearing that Timebank, a large UK charitable organisation that has recruited around 300,000 volunteers over the last decade – and a strategic partner of the Office for Civil Society (OCS) – is to have its statutory funding revoked.
When Timebank put up an uncharacteristically strongly-worded blog post displaying confusion at the income cut, the comments section was predictably polarised. While there was outrage and sympathy, there were also naysayers who questioned the wisdom of relying on major government funding as lifeblood. This varied from the ‘diversifying income is key’ camp (something Jon Duschinsky and I were casually debating over lunch a few weeks back), to the ‘appalled tax payer’ camp who don’t believe government should be subsidising charities to deliver parts of public services (the bits it can’t reach via the state?). To ensure I don’t belittle the latter argument, there is a rationally argued position about charities and ‘pressure-groups’ that appear to blur the line between arm of state and independent body by being too dependent on statutory funding; see the provocatively titled website Fake Charities.
I feel for Timebank. They’ve been pretty open when replying to comments that they have been (over?)relying on a fair amount of government cash – and were working to diversify their income. But at the same time they probably felt, especially in the midst of David Cameron’s unwavering call for a volunteer-driven Big Society, that they were safe from the worst of the cuts. For Timebank it wasn’t only business as usual post-May 2010, but it must have felt like Christmas had come – because here was a Government preaching about placing volunteers at the heart of its strategy and social priorities. Funding and ideology and strategic delivery – a holy trinity – with Government, charity, and business all building and mending communities through training volunteers in all kinds of localised roles.
From a communications perspective, I wonder whether this will put a chink in the armour of the Big Society narrative. For PR sake, I wonder whether the OSC could have kept Timebank on as a strategic partner, and mined its success for case studies of how a Big Society could work. But this raises two thorny issues; Timebank might be accused of being seduced by the promise of continuity primarily through statutory funding (would it appear on the pages of Fake Charities?), and the Tory-led coalition would look like it was playing favourites and deviating from its distaste for ‘Big Charity’; favouring grassroots volunteering.
There is clearly some ideology at play here – because a decision has been made to deny large organisations the ‘monopoly’ on volunteerism. It’s a message; we won’t pay to train the trainers, volunteerism will be organic and local, large organisations must devolve or at least won’t be able to claim much from tax payers via the government’s coat tails thank you very much. The ball is back in charities’ courts – we have to convince tax payers to invest in charities on a case by case, impact-demonstrable basis. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. But it means we have to have to get tough, and get real. Why are we here – what value are we adding – are we duplicating work? As the state retreats, are we waving or drowning? And how do we solve a problem like volunteering?