Volunteering’s a means, not an end. Charities should get elected or get stuffed.

by Dan Hodges

Private Eye editor, Ian Hislop, was once asked for his view on  an upcoming libel case involving Mohammad Al Fayed and Neil Hamilton. “I hope they both lose”, was his response. I’ve got the same feeling about the unfolding debate about the “big society”.

There are times at the moment when attempting to analyse  British politics feels a bit like analysing the Mad Hatter’s tea party:

“’Have some wine’, the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. ‘I don’t see any wine’, she remarked. ‘There isn’t any’, said the March Hare. ‘Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it’, said Alice angrily”.

Or, with apologies to Lewis Carroll:

“The prime minister announced, with a flourish, his ‘big idea’. ‘Our purse is empty. But do not worry. The voluntary sector will shoulder the burden’. The volunteers looked up with a start. ‘But we can’t. You’ve taken all our money as well’, they cried. ‘Taken your money’? replied the prime minister, ‘But I thought you were volunteers’? ‘We are’, they responded, ‘and we expect to be well paid for it’”.

Perhaps my analogy is a touch harsh. Our nation’s voluntary and charitable sectors are not the equivalent of Mohammed Al Fayed. And no one is the equivalent of Neil Hamilton.

Nor should anyone weep for David Cameron. There are Tory prime ministers who have made themselves enemies of the public sector. There are Labour prime ministers who have made themselves enemies of the private sector. But there are very few prime ministers who have managed the feat of simultaneously getting themselves the wrong side of the public, private and third sectors.

For a government keen on self-inflicted wounds, the big society represents a rusty Black & Decker, a long neglected shelf and a cursory interest in DIY. But there is something increasingly surreal about the way we on the left are maneuvering ourselves into the position of becoming defenders of the small society.

Here’s Polly Toynbee’s most recent cavalry charge into enemy territory:

“The sector is losing £5bn in the cuts as their contracts end. (Look at the Voluntary Sector Cuts website to see what’s going on). A third are likely to fold, a third have no asset base or reserves. Ministers keep boasting of the puny £100m transitional fund, supposed to tide charities over, but to what? They fail to say that the fund was shut in January, already massively oversubscribed”.

Hang on a second. Vital state services are being slashed. 10,000 police officers and support staff axed. The school building program scrapped. Aircraft carriers without aircraft. Why is the progressive left about to start dying in the last ditch for the charity sector?

I thought the whole point of the charity sector was to plug those gaps the state was unable or unwilling to fill. Or, to, put it even more bluntly, I’d like to decide which charities I give my money to. I don’t need David Cameron, or even Polly Toynbee, to do it for me.

A “puny £100m transitional fund”? Puny. Try telling that to the 2,000 Manchester City council workers who received their P45s in January.

Of course it’s going to be hard for those charities that face the end of their contracts. But that’s what happens when contracts end. What’s the alternative? We start to provide charity to the charities?

“A third are likely to fold. They have no asset base or reserves”. Why haven’t they got reserves? What have they done with their asset base? What have their trustees been doing?

It’s not just Polly Toynbee who’s going stampeding off into the voluntary sector wilderness. Here’s Ed Miliband in the Independent on Sunday:

“no one can volunteer at a library or a sure start centre if it’s being closed down. And nor can this Conservative-led government build a big society while simultaneously undermining its foundations with billions of pounds worth of cuts to the voluntary sector”.

What bizarre kind of tail wagging argument is that? We should spend hundreds of millions of pounds maintaining libraries and sure start centres just so people can volunteer in them? It’s insanity. If they are services the public requires, the state should fund them. If not, close them and spend the money on providing jobs and real apprenticeships, not abstract “volunteering” opportunities.

David Cameron’s flagship idea of getting the voluntary and charity sector to paper over the cracks in state provision was always doomed to failure. And it was doomed to failure for a simple reason. The state, voluntary and charity sectors are now almost indivisible.

I worked as a consultant to a number of charities. They all wanted two things. Total independence. And a shed load of taxpayer’s cash.

I remember attending one conference hosted for a group of charities all funded by DCLG. It was about how to better engage with key stakeholders. The civil servant hosting the session asked hopefully about the benefit of maintaining a good relationship with the sponsoring department. The politest response she received was, “not important”. More typical were, “we wish you’d keep your noses out”, “frankly you lot don’t know what you’re doing”,  and “you’re irrelevant”.

Another client I worked for asked me to produce a communications strategy. When I presented it and explained that a key component would be to try to engage more closely with government ministers, I was told by the chief executive, “fuck ‘em”. The finance director later told me that eighty five per cent of the charity’s income came from central government contracts.

Representatives of the third sector, who were initially fighting like alley cats to get a piece of the big society pie, are now acting like movietone gangsters. On Saturday, Sir Steven Bubb, chief executive of ACEVO, the association of chief executives of voluntary organisations, responded to adverse criticism by Shaun Bailey, the “big society ambassador”, by saying:

“This has to stop. A warning for all those promoting the project. Attacking big charities or the sector as a whole will not just be counterproductive but dangerous. We are trusted. Politicians are not. Attack us at your peril”.

Imagine if Bob Crowe had said that. People would calling for him to be sent to the Tower. Politicians may not be trusted. But they are elected. And they’re the ones responsible for accounting for how public funds are spent. If Sir Bubb wants to call the shots, he should get himself a rosette, identify a constituency and take his case to the country. In the meantime, blackmail and self-righteousness represent an unappealing mix.

The big society was always going to be a broken society. The idea that the scale of the current sending cuts could be offset by the charity and voluntary sectors was nothing but wishful fantasy. But nor can the charity and voluntary sectors expect special favours.

David Cameron has manifestly failed to sell his big society vision to the country. The third sector should be careful it doesn’t do the job for him.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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12 Responses to “Volunteering’s a means, not an end. Charities should get elected or get stuffed.”

  1. Tacitus says:

    No chance of the Third Sector being able to pick up the cudgels of the Big Society – they are facing cuts too. I fer what we are about to see a total realignment of social welfare in this country unless the left start defending services in a very real way now.

  2. Louise Restell says:

    I have a lot of sympathy for Dan’s view. When looking at the legal sector, I have argued that pro bono work, for example, can become a it like foreign aid and create dependency in the free legal advice sector, when what law centres should be doing is becoming self sustaining and move away from reliance on handouts.

    However, from the other side of the fence, with my trustee hat on, part of the problem is that the funding that charities do get, whether it’s grants from government or other funders, is that it is nearly always project related. This means that charities are constantly trying to come up with new ideas or areas of work to get funding and they can’t invest in their infrastructure or assets. For example, the charity I am a trustee for would dearly love to buy a building so it has a secure base from which to grow and create an asset base – maybe renting bits out and so on. But no-one will give us money for that and we are living hand to mouth to keep our services going.

    We should also not confuse ‘charities’ and ‘volunteering’. While most charities do rely on volunteers in some way, shape, or form, they also employ staff. So it won’t just be council workers getting their P45s…

    I don’t know what the answer is – I know it’s not the big society.

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    This is just bizarre.

    Yes, if services are needed, the state should provide them. But in a lot of cases the state provides them by contracting them out to charities. If we lose those charities, we lose the service – especially since I don’t see government ponying up the cash to run the services in-house.

    And I think you’re falling into your old habit of creative misreading with the Miliband quote. Those are two separate points which you’re conflating together. Nor is either of them remotely controversial – in the first case, it is abundantly clear that the Coalition’s plans for volunteers to take over libraries and sure-start centres will not work if they cannot be kept open long enough for the volunteers to be trained. In the second case, it’s never been in doubt that charities will have to shoulder a lot of the work of the Big Society. And if they lose a major revenue stream, they won’t be able to take the strain.

    These are not complicated points. You could say that government should be doing this, that the Big Society is just a rhetorical nostrum, and I’d agree. But government isn’t running those services and we’re going to keep hearing about the BS. We’ve got to deal with that, not just try to wish it away.

  4. Mark W says:

    ‘We are in the process of opening up billions of pounds’ worth of government contracts so charities and social enterprises can compete for the first time. ‘ – D Cameron, Observer 13/2/2011

    Assuming Ms Toynbee’s right about billions of cuts to charity’s grants does this not mean that the charities have a bit of an argument: They’re going to be asked to do exactly the same thing but having had millions wiped off their cashflow. They’re then going to have to reapply for these new government contracts, hiring new consultants and lobbyists to ingratiate themselves with the decisionmakers of those contracts. It seems Cameron’s position is contradictory – he wants charities to be less dependent on the state but wants to give them more government contracts.

  5. …” If they are services the public requires, the state should fund them. If not, close them and spend the money on providing jobs and real apprenticeships, not abstract “volunteering” opportunities.”

    Spot on.

  6. Robin Thorpe says:

    I agree with Louise Restell that it is important not to confuse the charity and voluntary sectors. Charities are not entirely staffed by volunteers and many volunteers are not involved with charities (school governors, school reading helpers, football coaches, cricket team managers); this is a fact that seems to elude most of the politicians who discuss the notion of a big society. My brother works for a youth charity that is almost entirely funded by local authorities. This is a service that is required by the state and therefore funded by the state but operated with lower overheads by a charity; this would seem to be the efficient way of operating that the Tory-led coalition are after? If, however, as a result of local authority cuts the future funding of the youth programme is stopped then he will lose his job and the service that his charity offers will cease to exist. This is the crux of the debate. Cameron’s message is indeed contradictory. He wishes to devolve power to local authorities (which incidentally was removed by Thatcher’s government to control the strong labour councils), yet he has cut their budgets. He wants to increase community cohesion yet the programmes that have been set up to do this are under threat from decreased budgets.

    Having said this I don’t entirely disagree with the big society. It is, in my opinion, closer to my vision of socialism then any other policy in the last 40 years. Local bodies, locally accountable and keeping local investment in the community with citizens freely giving their own time for the good of the community. This however remains an ideal. Cameron has no way of funding it and as Miliband has stated, set-up funds will be required to ensure that the correct structures are in place. The second major stumbling is that in general people are seemingly not willing to volunteer their time in the community. The last Labour government had a similiar ideal with regard to Foundation Hospitals; one of the objectives was to make them locally accountable by having an elected board. They just about managed to scrape an elected body but only elected by a small fraction of their servicable population. Other bodies such as schools, sports clubs and wildlife trusts are crying out for volunteers but not enough people want to help. Cameron is taking a gamble that by removing the crutch of the state that society will heal itself. It may fall down before it walks again.

  7. mazzawoo says:

    Wow! I don’t think I’ve come across a more jaundiced view of the voluntary sector, or a poorer analysis of the effect of the cuts. Dan, you may have worked *for* the VS, but you clearly have not worked *in* it.

  8. Christine W. says:

    Mark has stated above that ‘We are in the process of opening up billions of pounds’ worth of government contracts so charities and social enterprises can compete for the first time. ‘ – D Cameron, Observer 13/2/2011.

    Is this really true?Would they give us the chance to compete in offering the most relevant help we could give.It is easy to say that not all chances will be equal, but I guess any chance is better then none.

  9. Dan Hodges says:


    I have actually, but elaborate.


  10. Chris says:


    The big society was a marketing slogan designed to rebut the “no such thing as society” tag, wasn’t it? Sort of like Cameron’s version of New Labour only not as good, obviously.

  11. I may have to go soak in Domestos afterwards but if I grit my teeth and try really hard to be fair to Cameron…

    “David Cameron’s flagship idea of getting the voluntary and charity sector to paper over the cracks in state provision was always doomed to failure.”

    The concept was never about filling the gaps created by government cuts. It was about social cohesion and engagement; what the NuLab tried with “stakeholding” in many respects.

    Funny (in a tragic way) that Lab appropriated the language of capital and the Cons want to sound woolly and warm.

    Oh, I do agree that it’s doomed to failure. It always was but it’ll be an even more obvious millstone for Cameron now people (media lead) have been persuaded that it *is* supposed to cover all the lacunae in social provision.

  12. Bunny Mazonas says:

    This seems somewhat off-the-mark.

    Volunteers work for free. But the services they provide may cost money to run, and with the volunteers receiving no wages this money has to come from somewhere.

    An example;

    A charitable organisation provides free, or very cheap (under £1) hot meals to the homeless. The people that do the work are volunteers. They therefore do not expect a wage. But someone has to pay for the petrol that the vehicles they need use. Someone has to pay to cover the cost of renting or maintaining a kitchen, the cost of the gas and electricity, the cost of the raw ingredients used to make the food. The volunteers don’t get paid – they can’t be expected to cover these expenses. Donations from kindly individuals rarely meet the real-world costs of running charity services, which makes the funds provided by government absolutely essential.

    £100m is a pitiful sum of money when you realise what it is expected to cover. Consider the £300m that our esteemed government proudly stated was being plugged into the NHS to help “cure” those suffering from mental illness. The government wants 3 million mental health patients cured- so even if the NHS plugs that lump sum directly into front line services, that is £300 per person – just barely enough to cover what, 5 free counselling sessions?

    The voluntary sector are right to complain when they are being taken advantage of and dismissed as having so little value at the same time.

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