Is it charity if you charge?

I gave a seminar at Glasgow Caledonian University last week, which gave me a chance to return to some of my doctoral research into the voluntary hospitals that provided around one-third of Britain’s hospital beds before they were nationalised in the new National Health Service in 1948. A major focus of my research has been on the issue of payment. These institutions were charities, founded to care for the ‘sick poor’ who couldn’t afford doctors’ fees or nursing home costs. The early-twentieth century was a time of change for them, with new technologies and increasing demand, and against this backdrop various types of payment were introduced – something I’ve written about elsewhere. I don’t want to rehash that here, so much as flag up the central question that has occurred to me whilst researching this topic, which is: what is the meaning of payment?

Before the NHS it was the job of the Lady Almoner to assess patients' circumstances and decide a rate at which they would be asked to contribute financially to the maintenance of the hospital

Before the NHS it was the job of the Lady Almoner to assess patients’ circumstances and decide a rate at which they would be asked to contribute financially to the maintenance of the hospital

Business History is a dynamic field, but there is surprisingly little written on payment. This is striking when compared to the long-running historical discussion on gifting, drawing upon the anthropological works of Marcel Mauss and many others. The ‘gift exchange’ has been an important conceptual tool for historians wanting to explore alternatives to (and question the ubiquitous logic of) the modern capitalist market. The ritual of gifting, the myriad meanings put on display by the choice of gift and the power imbalance within reciprocal relationship created have all been debated by historians. So why is the meaning of payment left simply as a matter for practical management and business studies? When the act of payment is so well-engrained in our daily lives, so intimately woven in to the tapestry of our society, why do we not treat it as a revealing matter for us to consider?

A cultural history of payment is something I’d very much like to see, but it will be the work of more than one academic. My contribution is to interrogate the boundary between gifting and payment. Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the work of charities, many of whom do charge for services. This is not necessarily a problem for charities in demonstrating their work is of ‘public benefit’ (as this Charity Commission guidance document makes clear). The arguments for and against charging might include that it helps to make clear the value of the service provided as well as bring in cash or that it threatens the charitable ethos of the organisation. This is a real debate for the voluntary sector.

So, some questions: Do you work in or research an area of charity where services are charged for? Do you think the implications of this are adequately considered or discussed within the organisation? How easily or otherwise can and do the practice of payment and a charitable ethos sit together in practice?

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4 Responses to Is it charity if you charge?

  1. Lindsey Metcalf says:

    Very interesting article – and a very current issue of relevance to charities.

    My initial response is to wonder if it depends on why the charity is charging (do they make a profit, and if so, who benefits from that profit? What is the alternative – as state funding is increasingly withdrawn, can charities cover their costs in other ways?) and also about who pays (is there some kind of means-testing so that some services are free to those who really can’t contribute anything to the cost?)

    Volunteering could also be seen as another form of “gift-giving” – so what are the implications arising from volunteers helping to deliver a charity service that charges?

    I seem to have avoided answering your questions, and simply added some more! Its a complex issue, and your post has given me lots to think about.

  2. Charlotte Clements says:

    This made me think immediately of a conversation I had with the group I teach about voluntary action. We discussed the increasing fees and charges levied by charities and how in many cases these may be paid by local or statutory authority under contract term. However what really stood out were the students attitudes where it directly affected them – their volunteering placements. Many said they did not like the idea of an organisation that charged for work they were doing for free. Why should the organisation get money for something they are doing? They seemed to feel it devalued their voluntary hours somehow and changed their perception of the organisation (rather than the fee payers – most seemed happier at the suggestion the cost might be borne by a statutory authority). It was a really interesting discussion about how quantifying in monetary terms what volunteers do changes how they see themselves and their organisation. Most speak qualitatively about why they volunteer and what they gain from it.

    Volunteer time is a huge resource for the voluntary sector. In this case I wonder whether the ‘gift exchange’ of the volunteers time and labour is an important consideration here which organisations that charge need to take careful account of.

  3. Jon Weier says:

    This is a really interesting question that seems to come up quite often while researching the history of charitable/service organizations. The YMCA, the organization most central to my research, has a long history of charging fees for the use of YMCA spaces and services. In the world of the YMCA, fees have historically been justified as a way of enforcing charitable giving and providing for the continued financial existence of the organization, as well as subsidizing other services for those who cannot afford to pay. This has, at times, been quite problematic for the organization. During the First World War the YMCA charged soldiers for some of the services they provided, both on the home front and in the front lines. For example, the YMCAs charged soldiers for rooms in their hostels in London, Paris and other cities, while providing tea, coffee and other comforts in the immediate front lines free of charge. The charging of fees for services provided for soldiers became something of a controversy during and after the First World War. These kinds of challenges continue to the present. The Canadian YMCA, for example, has been the target of a number of challenges from for-profit fitness centres because the YMCA receives a tax benefit despite the fact that it charges for the health and fitness services it provides. The argument the YMCA makes is that not only are all profits reinvested into the organization, but that it also uses fees to provide subsidized and free services for those less fortunate.

  4. Eleanor Davey says:

    I’m sorry that I’m coming to this with a couple of days’ delay, but it’s such an important and thorny question. To offer a slightly different slant, the humanitarian sector has struggled with the question of payment in the form of a debate over volunteerism and what it tends to term ‘professionalisation’. Of course, professionalisation can mean the refinement of efficiency, effectiveness, codes of conduct and standards, and so on, but it has also been about the question of whether the humanitarian field should be considered a profession as such. Does it undermine the gesture if you are paid for it? Does it change your relationship with the person you are assisting or, for instance, the government of the country they are living in? Should Is it acceptable that you can make a career out of this type of action? In France these ideas have been particularly heavily debated given that many important organisations created there in 70s and since were trying to set themselves apart from more slow-moving bureaucratic organisations that they identified with salaried workers. But it’s a recurrent theme in a lot of the history and discussions today.

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