The concept of sustainability makes me nauseous, like marzipan on a cake

It implies that public sector contracts are the only way forward and are preferable to grants and donations, writes Debra Allcock Tyler

This article first appeared in the February edition of Third Sector Magazine

I really don’t like Christmas cake. I like the fruity bit, but the marzipan is revolting. A mere whiff of the stuff instantly makes me feel nauseous and want to rinse out my mouth with industrial-strength bleach.

The word “sustainability” has a similar effect on me. So when I read the interview inThird Sector with Rob Wilson, our new charities minister, who was freely bandying about the said atrocity (the word, not the foodstuff), you can imagine my response.

As a word, it’s relatively harmless. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”, which seems reasonable enough. But what I object to is how the word is used in the context of our sector. For starters, there is an underlying assumption that the job of a charity, once born, is to continue to exist ad infinitum. But let’s be brutally honest: there are probably a number of charities that don’t need to exist and might serve their beneficiaries better by merging or by closing down and handing their assets to another charity.

The term is also used to imply that charities relying on grants or donations are inherently unsustainable, because gifts of this nature are unpredictable. But any revenue stream is by its nature unreliable, whether it’s the sale of goods and services in the private sector or the collection of taxes in the public sector.

So what it tends to mean in practice is that governments divert precious funds that could be gifted as grants into, for example, funding sustainability in the form of getting charities ready to bid for public sector contracts – does anyone else see the delicious irony in that approach?

Given the gloomy forecasts for statutory funding, with 2015 once again predicted to be a year of slashing and burning comparable to a barbarian incursion, ask yourself which source of funding you think is more sustainable – a grant from a trust or a local government contract? There are even suggestions that local governments will go bankrupt. So if it’s a choice between putting my charity’s resources into chasing public contracts or obtaining grants, it’s the latter for me.

It seems to me that, over time, grants from trusts (which have been sustaining themselves for hundreds of years) and donations from the public (which, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Charities Aid Foundation, are back to 2007 levels) are far more reliable than government contracts. Even companies – notorious tightwads though they are – can be a better option, with worldwide charitable donations from companies in the FTSE 100 doubling in value over recent years, according to CAF.

Finally, it has always seemed to me that those organisations that do rely mainly on gifts in the form of donations and grants, and make extensive use of volunteers, generally appear to be the most hardy and capable of resisting the vicissitudes of the wider economic climate.

So don’t start the year talking about the sustainability of your charity – it’s a marzipan word. Talk instead about how best to serve your beneficiaries. It’s not just a matter of taste. It’s the cake that matters.