Scope and the Future of Doing Good

The Big Lottery Fund has just published a report on the future of charities

The Future of Doing Good which can be accessed here is essential reading for anyone in the sector, it is without question one of the most insightful papers published in the field, laying out as it does the many challenges ahead and exposing many of the tensions that currently exist both within the sector itself and between it and its partners.

Its author is Sonia Sodha, Chief Leader Writer at the Observer, and former advisor to Ed Miliband. Her paper does not provide any answers, but it does raise a whole series of soul-searching questions, some of which we summarise here.

The sector is complex and multifaceted and people within it have different notions of what they mean by doing good, or “creating social value” in today’s jargon.

Sodha helpfully identifies four different traditions for doing good, and understanding their interplay is critical to understanding how the sector is developing.

The first is liberalism: which starts from the belief that it is important for people to pursue their idea of the “good life” whether that be by starting a charity, making money in the private sector, doing whatever makes them happy and fulfilled and that therefore it is important to develop the skills and capabilities for people to make the most of their lives but it is up to them to choose what they go on to do.

The second is communitarianism with its emphasis on the importance of communities and the notion that it doesn’t make any sense to refer to individuals with no reference to where they live and their mutual dependence on others.

Third are what she calls “republicanism” which refers to that tradition which believes taking part in democratic processes as essential to the good life, whether that be joining political parties or joining grass roots organisations for change.

Finally there is the faith-based approach to philanthropy.

All these traditions are evident within the sector and yet in recent years the State has primarily taken the liberal view of doing good: seeing this as about helping to build peoples’ capacity and capabilities to secure outcomes for themselves.

This is very significant because in recent years we have seen a big shift in the way that public funding works: there is less of it around these days but an increasing proportion of the spend is now on paying charities to deliver contracts, rather than in grant aid to pursue their work.

This in turn means that the independence of the sector is compromised, and raises questions as to who is shaping the agenda for doing good, is it too much determined by politicians and civil servants, and sector leaders for that matter, and not enough by individuals and communities? And are the other traditions for doing good losing out?

Compounding that is the widespread attitude that doing good is about addressing needs. This is self evidently important, but what about building resilience and capacity amongst individuals and communities? There are growing murmurings within the sector that we do not have the balance right and spend too much time “doing things” to people instead of helping them to become more resilient.

Sodha poses a very uncomfortable question here. Charities are quite understandably, sharply focused on survival: but if we are doing good, should we not ultimately be working to create a society where our very existence is no longer necessary? How many organisations operate on that basis?

Furthermore spending is directed by those who hold the purse strings: the public sector and funding organisations and of course leaders of charitable organisations. But is the balance right? Are third sector leaders being heard loudly enough, and what about the communities and individuals – are we deciding on what they need rather than asking them what they require? And if that balance has become skewed, how can it be corrected?

Further to this, how do we know that projects will actually do good? This is not questioning the motives of those involved. But there are many examples of people setting out to do good who end up not achieving their objectives or else having negative impacts: an extreme example being the involvement of some charities and the Catholic Church in deporting the children of unmarried mothers to Australia in the 1950s.

Her paper also addresses the issue of competition and collaboration within the sector, making the point that whilst competition is often healthy, it does hold back the collaboration required to have more meaningful impact on clients. So there is a serious, difficult debate to be had there.

She also questions whether the sector is honest about itself, challenging the notion that everyone within it is a saint, and pointing out that doing good is not the only motivation for working for a charity, career fulfilment, personal development and building personal profile can also be factors. She believes this too needs to be debated, asking if egos sometimes hold organisations back.

The paper doesn’t hold back about funders either, asking fundamental questions about whether they themselves are drivers of some of the problems that currently exist asking for example: “Are funders interested enough in what happens to great organisations and people in the sector when their grant comes to an end – not organisational sustainability for its own sake, but to ensure we don’t lose value from the sector? “

The paper does not contain any answers but it does pose a lot of questions, some of them difficult and troubling.

In the next few weeks The Big Lottery Fund will be sharing the document with the sector in Northern Ireland and starting a debate on how we collectively shape the future of doing good.