Charity in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is blessed and cursed in equal measure. We are clearly a nation of conscience, as indicated by such a plethora of charitable institutions that almost no cause is left unrepresented. That is our blessing. However, every one of these institutions was not so fortuitous as to have been formed by an eccentric billionaire and do need funding in order to achieve their goals. Funding requires fundraising, and fundraising requires a vigorous campaign in order to extract as much money from the available sources as possible. Whether rich or poor, or somewhere in the middle, we are that source. That is our curse.

I would think there are very few people throughout the country who have not experienced the sharp end of a fundraiser’s pitch at this point. In the past years, despite recession, the industry has boomed and whether it was some bubbly young individual on the High Street, at your front door or unexpectedly on the phone, you have probably been asked to yield your hard earned money to at least one noble enterprise. Probably many.

For a certain minority, this is not a problem at all. There are some people who are genuinely enamoured with the work of an organisation and will happily and selflessly provide support, even to the extent of effecting their own lifestyle. For most, it’s a worthy nuisance and will offer support to a reasonable degree and hope the pestering won’t overcome the sense of satisfaction for essentially doing something good. And for many still, charities are an actual blight on society. The notion of giving away what is theirs in aid of something that doesn’t effect them is a mystery, and it’s an imposition and an insult to even be asked.

I work in professional fundraising, both out of necessity to achieve my ambitions but also because of all the things I could be doing to enable those ambitions, it is the best. Hospitality, retail or services would probably allow me to meet my financial obligations but I would possibly feel dead to my core, and so going to work and raising money for a number of undoubtedly important causes actually feels pretty great. In a slightly distant sense, I am part of a mechanism which varyingly saves or improves lives on a daily basis. I experience that diversity of reaction to my wholehearted attempts to represent the campaign I am working for and have plenty of time to think about the nature of this unwieldy beast.

A charity is basically a non-profit, non-governmental public service that relies on donations to function. In the majority of cases, these services could be provided under the tenants of a public health organisation such as the NHS were it better equipped and funded. But that is effectively how charities came to be. Philanthropic individuals or groups saw gaps in the support provided by public bodies and sought to bridge them, utilising the generosity and good sense of a people which saw the need. Establishing a national organisation off the cuff would be rather improbable and so a number of similar regional organisations would grow and either collaborate after a point or diversify their remit to remain independent and viable.

The result is that there are thousands of charitable organisations in the UK, most of which are highly valued but many of which are working separately of one another in almost exactly the same field. And they all need money. Want to provide meaningful support to children’s protection? A big ticket donation to Barnado’s is a good idea, but what about the NSPCC or The Children’s Society? People with disability need an extra hand, but while Scope is the leading organisation you might have heard about the growing Camphill Family? Cancer is one of the greatest threats to humanity, but do you go for Cancer Research UK? Macmillan? Marie Curie? Breakthrough Breast Cancer? Children with Cancer? Leukaemia Care? The lists are endless and don’t even stop with the more obvious problem areas. If you can’t decide between the National Trust or English Heritage as to who will better care for your local history, you’re in real trouble. God forbid I even get into the horde of environmental charities.

Disorganisation and inefficiency seem to be a macro-dilemma for the national, let alone global, charity behemoth. In most cases, you would hope to think that within the charities themselves there is an effective administration that distributes available funding to the core of their mission. It is clearly a point of consternation with many in the public that some organisations spend significant sums of money on campaigns and advertising, which although essential for survival under the current model, is definitely not the best use of funds. Often, the larger a charity becomes, the more expensive the administration and  the smaller the portion of that donated pound ends up supplying research or aid. Relatively speaking this isn’t the end of the world as the revenue stream of a large charity will still mean lots of money is going to the cause, but this clearly isn’t the best system.

Consolidation would seem to be the first logical step. If I had one pound to give to the cause of beating cancer, it would be best used by one organisation rather than ten. It would be easier for me to allocate those funds knowing that I wasn’t depriving another sound entity of that funding and I would not be subjected to their appeals. If the UK had a small group of headlining organisations, each replete with substantial resources dedicated to thoroughly distinct goals, the increased efficiency of revenue distribution would surely provide exponential improvements to those services.

Secondly, I would actually cut out the fundraising element altogether. Professional fundraising organisations are usually excellent value for money, giving substantial returns on investment, but do in fact seek to make at least a nominal profit. They are locked in an eternal struggle with the public to extract as much money as possible and, although doing so for excellent reasons, can only apply so much pressure. Public awareness of the methods and pro-activity of these companies is growing and one senses it is something of a bubble waiting to burst.

Taxation is the answer, as government is undeniably good at one thing and that is sucking money from the people on a scale that any fundraising company could only ever hope to dream of. As described earlier, a significant portion of the public do provide for these charities, often on a significant basis, but supporting these services shouldn’t be a question of individual altruism informed by individual thoughts on what is a more or less important service. They are all equally important with all dispositions accounted for, whether it be curing cancer, protecting children or the homeless, helping the disabled, ensuring the survival of habitats and species or preserving the rich legacy of a nation. I believe it is the responsibility of a society to ensure these goals are achieved and so whether it pleases you or not, you should contribute.

Spread across the wealth of a nation, this system would be a minor financial imposition to some, a minor relief to others, and yet we could all share in a sense of societal pride that is so obviously already generated by the existence of the NHS. Consistency of revenue is paramount to the effective functioning of a charity and so not only would they be seeing an improved intake themselves but the budgeting advantages would be huge. A greater part of the functionality of a charity could be directed towards the mission, with longer term planning. It’s important to stipulate that the charity would remain a private entity, equipped with all it’s expertise and experience, but government could in theory be a very effective paymaster. These institutions do generally have a good idea of what they need to fulfil their aims and so a new ministerial portfolio could quite easily oversee the appropriate distribution of these funds. The competitive aspect for increased funding would also motivate the different charitable sectors to provide better outcomes for better value.

It is true, I am arguing my form of employment should be made redundant, despite the satisfaction I take from it. But that is purely on the basis that I fully believe in the value of charities and think they should be better enabled. For every conversation I have where a supporter expresses satisfaction for their actions and offers further support, there are many times more conversations where stress and regret are apparent for not being able to do more. The rest usually involves patent irritation for my invasion of their personal time and an expressed desire to take my arguments elsewhere, often to the government who many feel should do more.

Of course the only way government could do more is with more taxation, but that should not technically be an issue. Negative public sentiment towards taxation is most often the result of poor use of those funds but if we were always able to see the material gains of our marginally increased burden then why not? If cancer survival rates improved and if every time you walked past a wheelchair bound individual and knew that you were part of a society that did as much as it could to provide that person with as damn near the same quality of life as everyone, how could you complain? The argument that charitable support should be voluntary so as to provide a sense of individual goodness is a morally utilitarian quibble at best.

And ultimately, who wouldn’t be happy to see the chugger (charity mugger) vanish from the High Street so you can get from shop to shop without the awkward averting of eyes or completely staged mobile phone call? Who wouldn’t be happy knowing that your home was indeed your castle where at the end of a days work you could relax without the phone or the doorbell calling upon your generosity, knowing you’ve already met your obligation to society? I’m the only loser really, but until the entire system changes, don’t expect a reprieve. Professional fundraising companies are highly effective and work on behalf of some the best causes imaginable. Too right they persevere.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Charity in the United Kingdom

  1. subwus

    Unbelievable. Compete crap.
    The way I see it the whole concept of charity is based on voluntary donations. You know, I decide whether to part with my money and give it to what I see is a good cause.
    Do you understand? Me deciding. Not the government deciding for me and taking my money with the threat of force and criminal sanction if I don’t comply.
    Yet you wonder in another article why corporations try to minimise their tax bills?????

  2. Fair enough you don’t like the idea, twas only that, an idea, but I’m afraid you’ll need to explain yourself a little better… I get your point about charitable donations and that’s fine but what does this have to do with corporate tax exposure?

    Obviously government has to decide on how much to tax people to pay for certain services, and they have to enforce taxation…

    But why should I not be incredulous that major corporations are paying less than a percent of tax?

  3. subwus

    There is nothing incredulous that corporations employ extremely expensive (on your and my terms) tax lawyers and accountants to pay only the tax that is required by the letter of the law.
    Let’s remind ourselves that this only happens because of the complexity of tax legislation. How long do you think it would take for you to read and understand Tolley’s Tax Guide for 2012/2013?
    But you also have to understand the contents of the previous years guide, then you are in a position to understand the impact and changes of the latest tax law legislation.
    Would you want to run a corporation for profit knowing that you have to read every annual new edition of Tolley’s Tax?
    You pay someone else to do that. That is what you do. The same way self-employed people have to pay high street accountants to keep up with
    paying the legislated amount of tax.
    If you want to condemn corporations on paying tax, you will have to condemn small employers on paying high street accountants to take advantage of tax breaks and the like.
    How are charities not on your favourable list (that are funded by taxation), rewarded and compensated, for the shortfall that they get in VOLUNTARY donations, because members of the public already feel they are doing there bit for charity by your compulsory taxation?
    Will you introduce tax breaks (hence increased tax law complexity) of some sort or another for those other charities? Will those unfavoured charities have to employ tax lawyers to gain from your legislation?
    Do you see how the more government takes on, the less room there is for spontaneous and charitable efforts by motivated members of the public?
    Hardly surprising that members of the public are so docile in exercising choice (which you complained about elsewhere) with regards to corporations, when you want to take even more choice away from the public by letting the government decide what charity is worthy or not.

    • Hmm… ok good reply. To be utterly honest, this article was a bit of an aberration, I was at the time working in the charitable sector, fundraising specifically, and was day dreaming somewhat about a means by which I could be spared my pain and still have the charities get the adequate funding they need to perform. You see the work some of these organisations do and can get pretty taken with the notion that it is important.

      On the other hand, the misery aspect of having to communicate with reluctant people and try and eek a bit of cash out of them was mutual. The general experience I had was that some folks are happy to give, as long as they don’t get pestered all the time… but 3rd party fundraising, ie those at your front door, on the phone or on the street, has been so ridiculously successful. despite the nuisance of it and the possible negative impact it has on perceptions of charity.

      i thought to spin out this alternate system. the notion of a “charity tax” is something that broadly goes against my personal views on the reach and competency of government, and besides, for reasons you highlight, it wouldn’t really work anyway. in theory a nice idea? maybe. not gonna stake much on it.

      as for corporations, you say some pertinent things. none of these companies did break the law, and i am a little away of the complexities of the tax code, perhaps not as much as you… but it doesn’t mean these companies were in any way obliged to act the way they did. i’ll say quickly, i believe in capitalism, companies should make a profit for reinvestment and expansion… but you cross a fairly clear line when you pursue a process of minimalising exposure to the extent that has been seen. it’s not ethical.

      it’s basic fairness, pure and simple. Apple et al can legitimately hide behind the legality of what they did. but my perception of them as moral entities is ruined, and will be until they pay more into the societies they operate in, whether or not they are legally obligated to do so.

      as a side note, being a very poor ‘consumer’ myself, in that i’m fairly spartan and disinterested in products and gizmos etc, i don’t really struggle with exercising the consumer power i was referring to.

      if you’re willing to answer, i’m curious, what’s your stake/exposure to this debate, professional?

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