Mel Young: I am interested in the notion that there are too many charities in the UK. I wonder what it means to have charities in society. If a country has lots of charities, is it a good thing? You could say that it was an indication of a society that cared and people were taking individual responsibility for others around them. On the other hand, you could argue that having lots of charities was a clear indication of a failure in society. If you created an international table of the number of charities per the population, would you be proud if your country came out top?
Alex Matthews: It’s a really interesting question. Are charities a sign of a compassionate society or a failing one? My tendency is to lean towards the former. I don’t think any government could ever successfully address all the issues that we face as a society. Yes, they could absolutely do better in areas like homelessness, poverty, health etc, but I don’t think they could ever eliminate those problems – and that’s where charities step in. They also allow people to show that they care – many people want to help others, whether that’s by donating their time or their money. If there weren’t any charities, it would be more difficult to do that – and I think that would be a loss to society.
What’s more, there is a crisis in leadership at the moment – many people do not trust their governments, but they do trust charities, so perhaps it is better for important work such as addressing homelessness and helping refugees, for example, to be done by people who we trust are kind and compassionate, and doing it for the right reasons?
MY: There are so many different ways to look at this which is why it is a key question. More and more charities are being created all the time and I don’t think anyone is stopping to ask why and indeed if this is an efficient way of helping out society. You say that we can’t ever eliminate problems like poverty but I’d like to think that in The New Ism, we can create an economic system where poverty doesn’t exist. If we imagine that then half the charities wouldn’t exist anymore and that surely would be a good thing! Maybe the ultimate goal for any charity should be to not exist, because then it will have achieved its aims. The real issue now is that because governments delegate the problem to the charity sector, many charities are simply managing a particular problem rather than solving it. There is a huge difference in this.
AM: Something that has always struck me about social entrepreneurs, as opposed to charities, is that the ultimate success is to go out of business, because their aims have been achieved. So you’re right, perhaps charities should have the same goal. And I do think you’re right that it would be ideal to live in a society where charities don’t have to exist because the government does its job properly. My question to you is whether that would create a less generous, more selfish society, and whether that’s a small price to pay?
MY: It is difficult isn’t it? Maybe we should look at charities in different sectors. So, charities working in the poverty sector should be trying to put themselves out of business for example but charities in the health sector should be operating together to improve health from all angles. Health charities do some incredible work and individuals relate to them and support them. So, maybe there needs to be a new definition for charities and clarity on what their role is in the New Ism world?
AM: That’s an interesting idea – redefining charities and ensuring that they have a clear vision and role, whether that’s combating the problem so effectively that they put themselves out of business, or finding ways to collaborate with others on a defined issue, for example. Because no matter where you stand on this, I think we can all agree that there are far too many charities in many countries. In the UK we must have hundreds of cancer charities, for example – there must be so many wasted resources. Imagine the power if they all came together to find a cure for cancer – but at the moment they are essentially competing against one another.
MY: That’s a good point. Maybe we are saying that it is the way the sector is organised which is the problem rather than the concept of charities per se. In some Scandinavian countries, for example, charities are employed by the government to deliver certain services over the long term. The charity isn’t involved in fundraising and is delivering against government targets. In essence, the charity is being paid by the public but they are paying through their taxes and the government is organising the delivery which can make it more efficient. So, it isn’t that people in Scandinavia are any less generous than people in the UK or USA who rattle cans to raise money, they are simply doing it in a different way. So, maybe we need to look at the way the charity sector is organised rather than challenging the whole concept of charity?
AM: The Scandinavian model is interesting, but it raises the question of when a charity stops being a charity and becomes a government supplier or consultant. Can they still be independent and innovative if they are being leaned on by the government to be cost-efficient as well? There are so many interesting questions that the issue of charities raises – to be discussed further!