Empty ethics: the dangers of a charity sector liberated from charity

A recent partner of charities who may not share a charity ethos.

Charities using coerced labour from workfare programs smells very off to the millions of people who see those programs as a poisonous attack on proper wages, on job creation, and on the right to eat whether you are working or not. These are charities, you hear people saying. Aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?

We could be charitable to the charities and assume they were being naive, thinking they would receive only genuine volunteers. In that case, they should relieve themselves of their naivety forthwith by reading the Boycott Workfare site and the personal testimonies of people coerced into work (for around £2 per hour) that can be found across the internet. They should also, perhaps, relieve themselves of their naivety about this government’s intentions. It fully intends to lower the cost of labour (i.e. make most of us poorer) for the sake of greater profits and anyone engaging with the government should understand this and ensure they are not playing a part in it. As an aside, workfare doesn’t work, if the intention is to get people into work. But the government is expanding the program. It’s almost like the main goal really is to provide cheap labour isn’t it?

But I think the issue is more than mere naivety. The charity sector has undergone two changes in recent years and both must have seemed like an improvement to the charities. One change was that with the growth of the EU, the arrival of the National Lottery and the (late) Office of the Third Sector, there has been more funding available from official sources. This has some apparently good effects but it also means – inevitably these days – the imposition of targets and monitoring. It is easy to mistake success against targets for success in making people’s lives better, particularly once your job depends on meeting the targets. It is easy too to start shifting your goals in response to the money.

The second change is the increased numbers of senior managers moving across, sometimes temporarily, from the private sector. This brings management ‘expertise’ into the charity sector but this is not a neutral expertise. Business-oriented managers are more likely to pursue growth for the sake of growth (since growth is all in the private sector) and they too are fond of targets. They are also more likely to make ‘rational’ economic decisions, like the alcohol dependency charity that takes money from alcohol companies. ‘We can make bad money good,’ the argument goes, blithely ignoring why the alcohol company needs them as a fig-leaf. The managerialism of big business frees those businesses from all responsibility to people – except the people they choose to please for sound business reasons. Is business management liberating charities from the need to show basic charity to people beyond their area of work?

The charities would claim, no doubt, that they have not lost their core ethics. And perhaps they haven’t. But many have lost their peripheral ethics, their all-round view. If you stick to a few ethical rules but decide to blind yourself to anything outside that then your ethics are empty. Charities should think hard about the damage this loss of a broader ethics could do to their reputation. They should think about the dynamics they are getting involved with when they agree to provide outsourced services for government, or when they partner with outsourcing corporations with goals very different to their own. They should think about more than just growth or targets. When someone offers them free labour from a pool of often-desperate people, they should perhaps take a moment to think about what they are getting involved in.

Meanwhile the rest of us should all think harder about who we give to. We now face a far worse prospect than targets-obsessed charities slipping into being feel-good employment schemes for middle class professionals. Some of them are in danger of becoming feel-bad unemployment schemes for us all.

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4 Responses to Empty ethics: the dangers of a charity sector liberated from charity

  1. Lucy Parsons says:

    Just some thoughts as they occur, so please don’t look for coherence and consistency here:

    An underlying reason for the acceptance of workfare has been the ongoing erosion of the concept of volunteering – even within the voluntary sector.
    The best example of this lack of has been around internships. The voluntary sector has been equivocal at best on this issue. At worst organisations have embraced the internship culture. So charities will trumpet their commitment to diversity and equal opportunities, yet at the same time run schemes that realistically are only open to young middle class people, who then have a leg up into their future careers.

    For me one of the major changes around funding is the one you allude to towards the end of the piece, the move from grants to commissioning. I think this is far more significant than EU, OTS or Lottery money. Local and Central government have scaled back grant funding in favour of commissioning charities to run services. In the past, charities would identify a social need and try to raise money to do something about it. Now increasingly they’re tendering for contracts. It’s not about needs identified at a lower level but priorities identified by government.

    Through this process charities are moving from being the ‘Third Sector’ (a phrase I always hated anyway) to being both an arm of the state and a participant in the marketisation/privatisation of health and social care.

    At the same time as the Big Society is meant to encourage voluntary activity charities are also facing cuts – including those that directly support volunteer engagement (Volunteering England and the network of local volunteer centres). People are supposed to form their own groups to run local services (e.g. keep open a local library). Aside from this being shit, impractical and wrong this may also open individuals up to all kinds of legal/financial implications that, with cuts to local Councils for Voluntary Service, they won’t have support on the ground to understand and deal with.

    I don’t know if there has been much of an increase in the move across of private sector managers to the voluntary sector (it’s something that’s always happened in my time). To be honest I wouldn’t necessarily blame such people for a change in culture – voluntary sector bosses are quite capable of the ‘pragmatism’ that blithely accepts the government agenda. It’s interesting to note that the organisation that most visibly and vocally claims to speak for the sector is ACEVO – the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. Google their Chief Exec Stephen Bubb if you’d like some amusement. It’s hard to tell his blog from the one spoofing him, such is the level of his self importance.

    I know charities aren’t weapons of anti-capitalist resistance. But they have been bodies attempting to plug the gaps in an inhumane system (and I’m not one who believes ‘the worse the better’ from a revolutionary point of view, I’m glad people do this), they have been an island of activity (relatively) outside the state and market, and they have been an example of mutual aid and self organisation. This is being increasingly threatened, both by outside forces and its own bosses and leaders.

  2. tim says:

    Seems to me that what constitutes charity has a very wide definition. For example, some charities provide logistical support to the military, or education for the children of exceptionally rich people.

    Frankly I find the idea of a charity as an ethical actor quite bizarre – it had not occurred to me before. Although charities are run by people who are ethical actors, I do not see a mechanism for a charity itself to make ethical choices (other than the aggregate of all the individual decisions).

    Also, charitable status is assigned by government – so I suppose that any relationship between what is a charity and what ethics are being applied is likely to be heavily filtered through the people and institutional processes involved in making that determination. I don’t see why a charity should be any more-or-less ethical (assuming it can even be ethical) than government in the general case.

  3. Contact says:

    I think you may have a more realistic view of the charity sector. I think a lot of the general public have a view of charities as generally benevolent bodies. “Doing something for charity ” is perceived to have ethical content. It may be this was always naive but I think the behaviour of many charities has changed in recent years, making it even more dangerous to regard them as ‘good’ without doing some investigation.

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