There are 17 weeks left until the UK’s General Election, but we are already pretty clearly in an election campaign. The parties have been unveiling their posters, showing us their picture of what they want the country to be like. But too often, instead of thinking and arguing about the big picture, we get pulled into discussions about the country in which a particular photo was taken, or the spelling of an MP’s name. Too often we get distracted from the difficult task by something we find it easier to concentrate on.
Charities and funders often have a difficult time keeping their mind on the big picture as well. That pressure has probably become harder for charities in recent years. As well as explicitly being told to ‘stick to their knitting’ by civil society minister Brooks Newmark, UK charities are working in a landscape in which they are encouraged to keep their heads down.
Contracting practice has probably done more effectively what the lobbying bill – which aims to tighten regulation on campaign spending during election periods, including by charities that are not party political – threatened to do. Over three-quarters of government funding to UK charities now comes through contracts rather than grants. That’s a substantial shift: grants may have been used for core funding and to provide space in which to think and plan, while contracts are generally limited to specific services. Contracts are often short-term, meaning organizations are held in a cycle of constant bidding for work. And some contracts, like those of the Work Programme, even come with gagging clauses that prevent people from criticizing the government.
Most of us would like to do our bit for a better world. But a focus on the short term risks making us into a sector that too easily gets stuck. It means we don’t have the money or the headspace to think through what we would like to do. We struggle to keep on top of what other people are doing, to read the research about whether a new intervention is working, or to spend some time thinking through a radical new approach. We become a sector that helps a lot of people in vital ways – but we are not revolutionary.
This might be enough for some, but it is not being true to the vision of many charities. We are a long way from ending poverty or cruelty to children, and a concentration on business as usual will not help us get there. Those charities that are able to implement a big strategy, like the Red Cross and its ‘Refusing to Ignore People in Crisis’ strategy, are often those that have a secure fundraising base which allows them to follow their own priorities.
Independent funders can provide some help to charities going through this time. Funders, too, need to remember their mission. Although the temptation is to provide more money into the front-line to try to meet a rising tide of demand, funders can help charities hold on to the longer-term aim. They can provide funding for campaigning work, or the core funding needed to explore a merger before it becomes a matter of survival. They can be part of future planning. If both funders and charities focus on where we want to end up, we might actually get there.
Angela Kail is head of the funder team at npc.