Skip to content

Luen’s blog: What does it mean to be a charity?

During the pandemic, I have asked myself ‘what does it mean to be a charity?’ many times. Because I think understanding the answer to this is at the heart of what charities do next and how the sector engages with the short term roadmap and longer term vision of our nation’s #BuildBackBetter future.

The charity sector is purpose led. It employs 3 per cent of the UK workforce – almost a million people. In terms of expenditure, the £60bn the sector spends is comparable in size to the education sector. It’s bigger than the police, fire service and armed forces combined. If it was part of the public sector, it would have a minister of state. Yet what it has are volunteer trustees, with huge legal responsibilities who have been doing their best through these difficult times without a lot of support. What it has are committed staff who go the extra mile often without pay because they believe in the mission they are pursuing. What it has is the ability to operate with a leap of faith because funding is short term, intermittent, difficult to predict and at times unsustainable.

And because of this, we need to ask ourselves some really important questions. For example, why is it that hospices and air ambulances, both of which provide highly-regulated, critically-important clinical services have to raise money through bucket-shaking and bric-a-brac sales to fund the work they do? 

Though an issue before the pandemic, the last year has really shone a light on how sustainable these vital services really are. The pandemic has pushed so many charities doing really valuable work to a cliff edge. A cliff edge where people have been made redundant, where operations have been downsized, where reserves have been emptied out, where staff have taken pay cuts yet put in innumerable additional hours to support the growing needs of their beneficiaries without knowing what the future might hold for them as people and as employers. 

The pandemic has exposed a lot of things; structural inequalities, mental health concerns, access to services to name but three. And it is the purpose led charity sector that exists to resolve many of these issues, a sector that has been so severely hit by the pandemic that we risk losing the entire concept of what it means to be a charity. This is why the sector has had to run campaigns like #NeverMoreNeeded to focus government attention on supporting the work and value driven by charities to provide local solutions that work.

Yet the pandemic has also shown we know what it means to be charitable; people have given generously to emergency appeals, hundreds of thousands of people signed up to be volunteer responders helping others in their communities and there is a wealth of donated stock waiting to be sold in our shops.

So what is the strategic mismatch here? How do we convert people’s desire to be charitable into a recipe that creates sustainability for the sector? What have we learned from the pandemic about the future of our sector? 

  1. We need to come together to have a bigger voice. 
  2. We need to tell our story really coherently. 
  3. We need to be paid for work we do that would otherwise be a cost to the public purse. 
  4. We need government to take us seriously, to hear our concerns, invest in a dialogue with us and see us as part of the roadmap out of this crisis, not just in the short-term but for the long-term too.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak can recognise the value of the sector in positioning us at the heart of the economic solution that we need. Charities can play a massive role in the whole #BuildBackBetter concept but need the structural support from government to harness the community engagement that will drive the change. Our economy relies on people but people need support and this is so often the gap that charities fill. 

This is what it means to be a charity … being at the heart of solutions that work for everyone because we put people first. Because we put people before profit.