Policy, Policy, campaigns & research

The ‘value of charity’ is in its independence, not conformity

Andrew Purkis, DSC Trustee, writes about independence (not conformity) being the key value of the voluntary sector.

The ‘value of charity’ is in its independence, not conformity, writes DSC Trustee Andrew Purkis


What a muddle the Charity Commission’s leadership seems to be in about the distinctive nature of registered charities!

Early in October the Charity Commission published a paper, written jointly with Frontier Economics (led by Lord Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary), to ‘explain the steps that are needed to measure the value of the charity sector’.

The main thrust is: we all need to understand the ‘real’ value of the sector, which lies not only in its economic value or in what it achieves for its beneficiaries, but also in wider benefits to society, particularly in what makes the sector ‘special’ in the eyes of the ‘public’. There are some sensible descriptions of the different dimensions of this value to society. Sadly, however, the paper is full of Stowell-isms (imprecise generalisations that lead to confusion).

Firstly, although the paper is supposed to be about what is distinctive about the charity sector, the benefits spoken of, such as those from volunteering, altruism, participation, community-building, wellbeing and giving, apply equally to the wider civil society sector that is not formally registered as charities. This is a howler.

Secondly, what the Charity Commission Chair likes to describe as ‘charitable’ behaviour is not defined and the vague pointers she has given in the past are by no means distinctive to registered charities, or even to civil society. Anyone who has experienced the love and care of the NHS at its best will bridle at the claim that the charity sector is more loving or caring. The selflessness of service people, police or fire-fighters risking their lives is every bit as inspiring as the supposed ‘selflessness’ of the charity sector.

Trust in charities is not necessarily, as stated in the paper, a result of meeting (distinctively?) high standards of conduct and behaviour (not defined), but is certainly something to do with three factors that are barely mentioned in the paper: the fact that charities must be independent, the fact that they must be for a charitable purpose and the public benefit (not private or sectional gain) and the fact that the formal registration means they have passed these tests and will be regulated by the Charity Commission to ensure they stick to them.

Thirdly, the paper makes sadly familiar generalisations about the expectations of charities on the part of ‘the public’. But the Charity Commission and all of us know that ‘the public’ is not monolithic, and that, as shown by their own research, most of the public have no idea which organisations are charities, beyond a very small number of household names. So what ‘the public’ thinks about charities is an unreliable basis for sensible regulation (or measuring their value).

Fourthly, the paper generally downplays the point that charities exist to promote particular causes, defined in law by Parliament, for the public benefit. It is pre-occupied with secondary wider benefits. It downplays the fact that most people give to and volunteer for a particular charity and cause, not to ‘charity’ in the abstract. The main responsibility of charities is to pursue their individual charitable objects independently and for the public benefit; their main responsibility is to their beneficiaries, who are not just one among equal stakeholders.

Fifthly, the paper states that ‘charities have the potential, perhaps even the responsibility to help bridge our divides but they will not be able to fulfil this role if they themselves are seen as contributing to them’.

But the purpose of many charities is sometimes divisive – think of fundamentalist kinds of religion, public schools, environmental campaigns such as those who have just brought about the moratorium on fracking, those supporting unpopular groups, feminist and LGBT charities, not to mention the Institute for Economic Affairs, whose charity status the Commission has decided not to challenge: for many, at times, their role is contentious. Surely the Chair of the Charity Commission of all people should respect the diversity of the sector?

If only the Charity Commission would ground itself in what really is the distinctive nature of registered charities, and in what really does apply to the sector as a whole: the combination of the voluntary principle, independence, dedication to a charitable cause within charity law, public benefit, regulation in the public interest – and leave Thought for the Day to others.


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