Charity begins at…? Part 1

We all know that Christmas is traditionally the season of giving, even if it is only presents to loved ones. The problem is that it would appear that the Government also knows this and has, via Francis Maude and Anne Milton, floated ideas to do what it does best: give away what belongs to other people.

For the sake of length I’ll address these two separate but related issues in two posts beginning with Francis Maude.

On the Wednesday just gone a Green Paper published on behalf of Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, proposed “a new role for government as a facilitator of giving, making it easier for philanthropists, volunteers and charities to form partnerships”. Something tells me that those charities which are still charities (and not simply an extension of the state) don’t really need the dead hand of central government adding an extra layer of management and complexity to their organisations.

The first part of the paper talks about how we can be encouraged to part with our time and money:

Business can offer valuable support by, for example, encouraging employees to give time and money, introducing payroll giving, making company resources available to community groups, and helping employees learn how to get involved in social action.

Oh great, yet more potential for top slicing my salary. What if I don’t want to give that month? Or if I want to give money to a different cause? Can’t imagine that HR of a small, let alone a large, company will be to happy keeping track of what and how much is supposed to be going to whom across every employee on a monthly basis. This will quickly get boiled down to something to make their lives easier: a fixed percentage to one of a small number of organisations on for a fixed period (say 6 or 12 months) with no way to opt out until that period is over. Thanks, but no thanks. If I want to donate it’ll be from my own pocket as and when I want to and to whomever I wish.

The Pennies Foundation has developed marginal giving technology that allows customers to ’round up the pound’ and so give small amounts every time they make a payment with a debit or credit card.

Are sales assistants going to be trained to ask you to do this in the same way they ask about your store card? This will result in the length of time it takes to extract money from the customer increasing, more staff being required to maintain throughput and thus fixed costs go up. Which charity is the money going to go to? Do we get to chose and let our bank know or is it going to be the charity that the business you are patronising chooses? If the latter then stores will have to let their customers know and staff will no doubt be asked at the checkout – this slowing things down further.

The Colombian system of ATM giving allows customers to make a donation every time they withdraw money.

Yet another screen to read when withdrawing money? All people want to do is get their hard earned cash, not be made to feel guilty for hitting the ‘No’ button. And the same problem as described above applies.

Online donation agencies like justgiving and virginmoneygiving have made it easier both for people to raise money and for people to give.

Applications and websites, such as the forthcoming Givey, allow donors to give time or money while they’re on the move using mobile phones or portable computers.


Internet platforms like slivers.com match organisations with people who want to ‘micro-volunteer’ or donate short periods of time.

All of these have something thing in common – they were developed without interference from government. It is business and charities adapting to the changing environment around them and simply getting on with things without needing Nanny to tell them how. The later however is a example of a nice idea not initially working in the market place, an ensuing spat between creator and money men over ownership and resurrection before being given taxpayers money and eventually completely selling out to the public sector.

And all that is just for those who have money, no matter how little. The paper does however suggest offering tax relief to those who do decide to give money. If you are too young to have money though, fear not, you will targeted in other ways:

National Citizen Service will open up a host of new opportunities for 16 year-olds to give time. It will play an important role both in building social cohesion by creating new connections between young people, and in demonstrating the benefits of social action to them.

Or they could go out and get a (Saturday) job like my generation and those before mine did. If a 16 year-old wants to volunteer they will but having some well meaning adult telling them to do so will do down like a lead balloon at an age where children barely listen to their own parents.

They are also looking to “fund a programme for younger school children to find out about giving and establish a social norm at an early stage of life”. Or, in other words, getting them whilst they are too young to know any better.

Even death should not be a reason not to give. One of the many quotes scattered amongst the document informs us that only 9% of the total value of legacies goes to charity, the rest being spread amongst family and friends. Quelle horreur! I take it that the people behind this have never seen the result of leaving one’s entire estate to charity? Locusts are known to leave more behind than a charity performing a house clearance. Be sensible, suggest a collection be taken up on behalf of your favourite charity instead of flowers and make sure that money is given to the local branch rather than the central hub.

Fresh from telling us how to, the paper moves on to telling us where we can give to and here, once again, we find that the state already has its tentacles buried inside the so-called ‘third-sector’ having taken the previously independent UK Community Foundations, brought them into Orwellian sounding ‘Office of the Third Sector’ and supplied them with a generous amount of taxpayer money (£130 million). This is as well as having them involved in distributing money collected via the National Lottery.

Not yet content, we are informed that starting in Match 2011, the taxpayer will be “investing in the front line Volunteer Infrastructure Programme in order to provide the public with information on local volunteering opportunities and to provide support to organisations that manage volunteers”. Why pray tell? Has it been impossible up to now for individuals to find causes they they wish to assist? Has every organisation been incompetently run?

No proposal would, of course, be down with the kids unless it could be linked to the media, both new and old. Reflecting the current way of the world Facebook and Twitter get an obligatory mention as does C4s Secret Millionaire and the charity marathons hosted by our state media machine.

To be fair it does say that not all giving should not be selfless however and that large donations, be it in time or money, should be recognised. I’m not sure though that ideas such as

thank you letters from Ministers; a national day to celebrate donors; a televised weekly ‘thank you’ to national lottery winners who have donated;

will induce anything other than mass vomiting however.

Never fear though, the government is leading by example…

Government has the opportunity to encourage its employees to lead by example, and in so doing help build new social norms. Plans are already underway to develop a ‘civic service’, whereby civil servants are encouraged to contribute to their communities.

What joy, more attempts by government to produce the ideal prole but this time they are using peer pressure to back up their desires. It isn’t content to stick with just encouraging those on the payroll to give of their time though:

For instance, the Department of Health provided £5,000 to Southwark Voluntary Action (the Council for Voluntary Service local to one of the Department’s office buildings) to compile a directory of local community venues that could be used for external meetings and events. This has multiple benefits of increasing links with local community groups, reducing public spend on venue hire and pumping more public money into the local community.

Yep, it is that old favourite of using your money as well on something that should be done by the market… and if it isn’t done by the market then the need for it doesn’t exist or the savings in time and money are insignificant.

Early on, the paper tells us that the main lesson that government can draw from the past is to acknowledge its limits. A pity then that it decided to get involved as it seems to ignore that salutatory point as the paper goes on and in the end it just seems like the paper is all about the government actions in effectively nationalising the entire charitable sector – for our own good. Given the success of the state in other fields such a move would spell disaster.

Disclaimer: The author donates money to two charities – the RNLI and the Royal British Legion. She would consider giving her time to local organisations but doesn’t have any spare Monday to Friday and likes to spend the weekend doing her own thing. You can, if you so wish, consider the Sunday afternoons spent scoring for a local cricket club, producing the statistics and maintaining their website – all without any pay (unless you count beer) – as giving time to charity.

7 Comments

  1. Me says:

    Payroll giving is, of course, not a new idea. Been around about 15-20 years.

  2. Me says:

    I hear what you say about leaving things to the market, however the market is often having to fill in where the state has unreasonably withdrawn. As a volunteer / board member with half a dozen charities, is apparent with two of them that our role is taking over what in recent times Government would, correctly, have done.

    Not optional extras, but basics. Helping OAPs sort their Taxes out – previously there was a local tax office, now there is a 0845 number or a web site. Fine the younger and connected, not so good for those who struggle with technology. Do we just let them drift? Cut them loose? It comes down to the third sector to fill the gap, no state provision, maybe something from the Lottery if you are very lucky. Its the same with another social care charity I’m involved with. From £500k of public money pa in the recent past my advice to the board is to plan to run free of public money – but still providing the same service – in this case day care for people with special health needs – hardly a nice to have, more a minimum standard of a civilised society.

    The problem is the Coalitions Scorched Earth policy on spending is hurting those who cannot defend themselves, not the “sharp elbowed” middle classes.

    • Misanthrope Girl says:

      I would certainly not wish to advocate depriving the most vulnerable in society of help. Indeed, I think that providing assistance those who cannot help themselves is one of the very few things that I think the state should do.

      However any charity that depends on taxpayers money to do its work is not a charity but simply an arm of the state and bleating when the state decides to withdraw (as the newly knighted Sir Stephen Bubb is doing) doesn’t tug any heartstrings I’m afraid.

      Nor though do I have any sympathy for the foolish taxpayers who are complaining about the withdrawal of their benefits as they should never have been given this ‘free’ money in the first place.

      IMO the collation is getting it wrong because it is looking at the problem from the wrong direction. Instead of coming at it from above and saying what can we do without, they should be starting again from the beginning and saying what is it that we need to do to protect those who can’t protect themselves and letting everyone else get on with the lives without interference.

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  4. Demelza says:

    Some years ago I was listening to a chap who ran a benevolent association for the motor trade. They were financed through voluntary donations, with Christmas being an important time for donations. Then in 1981, the Penlee lifeboat was lost shortly before Christmas, and there was a huge public response – unfortunately for the motor trades benevolent association, some of this was diverted charity rather than “new money”, and they had to scale back their operations in 1982. The management vowed this would not happen to them again.

    So, before there were tax benefits, they set up a payroll giving scheme, which they took to companies in the sector – in order to safeguard their operations, it was important to receive regular and structured giving rather than depend on spontaneous and occasional donations.

    That single word “Charity” covers such a wide range of activities, from emergency relief through to organisations like the Salvation Army (who are the second biggest provider of social services in GB, after government [local and central]).

    For charity to be effective it sometimes has to seem a little mercenary – far better than being well meaning but haphazard.

  5. WitteringWitney says:

    Damn good article MG, looking forward to part 2……

    We seem to be of the same mind in regard to charities to which we are prepared to donate and the two you mention are the only ones I am prepared to support, although if I see a Help for Heroes collecting tin I do contribute.

    A quote by Daniel Moynihan seems appropriate:

    “Citizen participation is a device whereby public officials induce non-public individuals to act as the officials desire.”