Charity Closures and Changing Fortunes

In all of the pre-Christmas frivolity you may be forgiven for having missed an article in the Observer late last year, detailing how one in six charities could face closure this year. In the cold light of a New Year when many households are tightening belts and we have already seen some high-profile casualties on our high streets, it is striking to think that we may lose such a large proportion of our charities. When so many voluntary organisations provide much-needed services in straightened times, this raises a question of how society will fill the void they may leave and what the voluntary sector will look like by the end of this Parliament.

Frank Prochaska

Frank Prochaska

Throughout history, voluntary action’s fortunes have waxed and waned. Frank Prochaksa has written about a golden age of voluntarism in the high Victorian period and decline since. Equally, many believed that after the Beveridge report, the sector would shrink dramatically, when it in fact saw something of a boom in the 1960s with hundreds of new charities being registered each year. Again concern for the sector arose in the 1980s from fears about what Margaret Thatcher’s welfare reforms and ‘rolling back’ of the state would mean for voluntarism.

While concern about the future of the sector is valid in the face of a stagnant economy and budget cuts, history shows that voluntary action adapts and rises to the challenges of circumstance. More recent literature on voluntary action history, for example from Matthew Hilton in his edited collection on The Ages of Voluntarism, tends to stress the diversity and adaptability of voluntarism. It seeks ‘to tackle specifically the decline narratives’ and ‘champion interpretations of continuity and change’. One of the ways recent historiography on voluntarism has done this is by shedding light on previously neglected areas and inviting us to consider voluntary action in a wider sense.

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

Edited by Matthew Hilton and James McKay (Oxford University Press/British Academy)

By seeing the history of voluntary organisations as one of ‘constant renewal and adaptation’ we can perhaps more optimistically anticipate what the sector may look like in the future. For people within the sector, the call by Colin Rochester and Meta Zimmeck, for voluntary organisations to ‘return to their roots’, might provide a starting point for this latest renewal.

Despite the bleak outlook, even from Colin and Meta in their recent review of 2012, there is hope that the sector will once again prove resilient and innovative. There has also always been a vibrant, though little understood, swarm of informal voluntarism which may yet soften the blow of fewer organised voluntary services. Whatever manifests itself in the short term, in the longer term the ‘big society’ and the new emerging welfare economy will appear to historians as parts of the same continuity and change which have always characterised voluntary action history. This, at least, should offer us some reassurance as most of us start the New Year, like many charities, with a bit less money in our pockets.

Matthew Hilton talks about his research into Non-Governmental Organisations.
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6 Responses to Charity Closures and Changing Fortunes

  1. Gareth Millward says:

    Charlotte, thanks for this! I wonder how much reliance on public money has had on this. Since the 1980s especially, a number of charities have received money from local and national government to take over the bits of the welfare state the government could no longer be arsed to deal with. With funding being squeezed, are these organisations now suffering through over-reliance on statutory help? And if so, are we going to see a major crisis in the welfare state as the fail-safes of voluntary action are no longer there to pick up the pieces when the government fails us?

  2. Kate Bradley says:

    @Gareth, I agree that certainly some organisations have grown on statutory funding for what is effectively ‘contracted out’ work which makes them vulnerable in times like these, whilst others are also in a difficult position on account of local government being a source of grants. There is a sense that philanthropic foundations should pick up the tab, but their budgets are often small in comparison to the annual local council spend on welfare and their founding deeds are explicit about what they can and cannot do. This leaves the public to make donations… an easier proposition with some causes rather than others, I suspect.

    I also wonder what this will do to innovation in the sector, if voluntary organisations are trying to keep afloat. When the voluntary sector was ‘contracting’ in the 1940s and 1950s, the state taking over *certain* aspects of charities’ work freed people in those sectors to move beyond fire-fighting to tackle the more holistic needs. Demand for things like legal advice never abated, as people would still need support in dealing with the welfare state, actually getting what they needed or contending with bureaucracy – something also under threat from proposed changes to legal aid/advice. Many who went on to work in the welfare state spent their early days volunteering and training in voluntary organisations, not to mention the often symbiotic role between charities, local and national government in trying out new approaches and building up an evidence base for action.

  3. Charlotte Clements says:

    @Gareth – I am not sure I see voluntary action as a fail safe, but there is increasingly a sense that we might be heading into a welfare crisis of some kind. I think we will see less reliance on statutory funding in its many forms and I do think there will be casualties in the voluntary sector. It remains to be seen whether this, in conjunction with state welfare cuts will amount to a crisis or if circumstance will somehow soften the blow. I do not pretend to know the answer to this. However, as my blog indicates, I am trying to find a more optimistic viewpoint! In the shorter term, however, perhaps voluntary organisations will return to a ‘fire-fighting’ stage for a while.

    I was intrigued however to read Colin and Meta’s call to return to core values in this context. I have wondered whether a smaller, leaner sector might regain more of its independence, be better at working in partnership and, as Kate mentions, boost its historic role as a welfare innovator. Might we also see a return to the more activist and protest role of voluntary organisations as they no longer fear dissent equalling the drying up of grants? I suggest there are already signs that voluntary organisations are being quite vocal about what is happening in their areas.

    You have pointed to an important question though, and one I think some voluntary organisations are and should be asking themselves: were we over-reliant on statutory help? Evaluating this might help organisations develop more sustainable models and think more carefully about their relationship with the state in the future if indeed state money is ever forthcoming again.

  4. Eleanor Davey says:

    Really interesting stuff, and lots of points to think more about. I do like the optimism and agree that a historical perspective can sometimes offer some reassurance on that front. Though I wonder what is the place of time donations (instead of financial ones) in situations like this – does less change in the pocket make people more inclined to give in other ways? Or is there some kind of charity version of slacktivism in operation here that sees people ‘like’ an organisation’s page instead of donating either time or money?

  5. Charlotte Clements says:

    As an interesting update to some of the stuff here, especially re my comments yesterday, these articles in the Guardian today seem especially relevant. Both commenting on the report by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector and reaction to it in the media today.

    Eleanor, I think some charities have been looking at the time donations issue more carefully for some years. I worked in charity’s volunteering department with people doing exactly that. However it is a complex issue where time might realistically be being spent trying to maximise income in hard times, or where the time donation is in an informal setting and so very hard to measure. Social media and internet technologies are one area where there may be new opportunities for some charities, but I think making the most of this depends on the type of charity and having the expertise to make it work. I’d be concerned that a form of slacktavism might emerge, but in terms of agenda setting and raising awareness as a primer for other types of engagement, perhaps a ‘like’ is a step in a wider strategy for most organisations now.

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d like to hear from any social-media-savvy voluntary organisations, staff or volunteers on what they think.

  6. Lindsey Metcalf says:

    I also like the optimistic viewpoint – we could definitely use some optimism in these bleak times – but I also believe that charities face an extremely challenging time in the immediate future.

    Do you think that is it only with ‘hindsight’ that we can take a more rose-tinted view of the resilience of the sector as a whole? What I mean is, it may be quite difficult in the present to take comfort from the fact that the voluntary sector has adapted and changed in earlier periods of time.

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