The Conservatives are making a lot of play of their ‘Big Society’, where voluntary organisations, community groups and charities pick up the areas from which the government would withdraw, under their plans for a smaller government. But as a former voluntary and charity worker, I wonder if they’ve asked the voluntary organisations themselves.
Anyone who has worked with a voluntary organisation that has, at some time, taken government funding or a government mandate will know that it can be a poisoned chalice. Not long ago a charity chief executive told me that it was an annual nightmare to try to work out the following year’s budgets, because the government was so late in deciding what they would fund that all the staff had to be put on notice of redundancy for three months each spring. This goes for central government funding, arms length funding — for example, through the Arts Council –, local government funding, and funding which comes through Local Education Authorities or by even more circuitous routes.
But perhaps the Conservatives are not interested in actually giving money to charities. They are, after all, trying to reduce expenditure. It’s true that charities often use money more efficiently than government does (although that is because they supplement it through fundraising), but if you don’t want to hand any money over at all, then there is no danger of charities becoming grant-dependent.
But that begs the question, why would any charities redefine their objectives in order to fulfil Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ plan? What’s worse, what would the mechanism for communicating this plan be? I’ve been to many seminars designed to engage my interest as an arts worker, church leader, health worker, businessman, public relations practitioner, musician (remember that each man in his time plays many parts!). As often as not, these seminars entirely fail to hit their market. I’ve sat with young musicians in torn jeans and Nikes while a middle-aged man in a suit tried to explain new structures for the arts. I’ve sat in meetings targeted at church leaders where local authority bureaucrats began by explaining their opposition to organised religion, but their (uncomfortable) willingness for churches to get involved with their community project. I’ve sat in tedious seminars for health workers where the speaker seemed to imagine that, as health workers, we clearly weren’t very bright, and had to have our own jobs explained to us. I generally come away with mild interest — usually much milder than the interest I went in with. I don’t ever recall actually doing anything differently as a result of such talkings-to.
Community groups, charities and other targets of David Cameron exist not for his benefit, but for whatever purpose they were created for. They also have a character which is unique, based on the community of people that run them. Neither of these are amenable to a sudden diktat from government, nor to softer overtures. If Britain’s charities are not currently delivering the Big Society that David Cameron wants (and clearly they are not, otherwise he would not have to try to make his case), then they are not going to suddenly start delivering it because he asks them to.
The crucial thing about voluntary organisations which David Cameron seems to fail to understand is, simply, that they are voluntary.