Network of Regional Youth Work Units England blog

A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.

Raking it in

In this week’s blog, Jamie Mercer from Youth Focus: North East looks at the diminishing trust the public has towards charities and what we as a sector must do to combat this.

It seems to me that there are very few reasons for people to trust charities these days. The on-going issues with Kids Company and the death of 92-year-old Olive Cooke are the most recent threats to public trust in the third sector. But, to be honest, this has been going on for some time now.

In 2011, BeatBullying was forced to shut down due to unmanageable overexpansion and allegations of mismanagement. Then in 2013, Comic Relief were caught up in a scandal involving investing millions of pounds in arms and tobacco firms and in November last year David Craig released his book: The Great Charity Scandal.

In this book, Craig asserts that, while charities claim that 90p of every £1 raised is spent on ‘charitable activities’, the actual reality is that half of every £1 raised goes on covering core costs: management, strategy, development, campaigning, and fundraising – not exactly what the public sees as being ‘charitable activities’.

Craig calls out many UK charities as being ‘hungry monsters’, with the third sector – who employ more staff than the UK’s car, aerospace, or chemical sectors – raising almost £80 billion per year and making approximately 13 billion ‘asks’ for funding per year.

In 2013, a parliament enquiry into the third sector found that there were so many charities that the Charity Commission for England and Wales was struggling to ascertain whether most registered charities were legitimate, rather than tax avoidance schemes.

While this does seem quite scathing and accusatory at first glance, the attacks are aimed not at all charities, but at charities that put their own interests ahead of those that they are trying to help. It seems that the number of charities who are unscrupulous and aggressive outweighs those that follow regulations and are open and transparent about where public money is being spent. Accountability is key to regaining public trust.

The Charity Commission has released its three-year strategic plan for 2015-2018. In it, they offer five statutory objectives to take forward:

1. The public confidence objective: to increase public trust and confidence in charities.

2. The public benefit objective: to promote awareness and understanding of the operation of the public benefit requirement.

3. The compliance objective: to promote compliance by charity trustees with their legal obligations in exercising control and management of the administration of charities.

4. The charitable resources objective: to promote the effective use of charitable resources.

5. The accountability objective: to enhance the accountability of charities to donors, beneficiaries and the public

There are roughly 164,000 registered charities in the UK and charities are not just comprised of face-to-face workers. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes and a lot of ‘hidden’ expenditure that most people might not think of. The public needs to be made aware that, because of funding cuts and by and large a lack of support from government, charities are increasingly being run like a business but when we do this the sector is accused of not acting in a charitable way. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Let’s take the example of sending a shoebox parcel abroad to provide some basic comforts.

  • There are design and production costs to get the message out there. This could be a flyer campaign, a radio campaign, online or TV. There are lots of different methods but each have their own costs attributed to it: Electricity bills, occupation of physical space, telephones, hiring external companies or materials for in-house production. How are you going to get the message of the shoebox project out there to members of the public?
  • Support to workers In terms of phone calls, emails, producing assisting documents, pulling PowerPoint presentations together and making sure the staff are sticking to a budget agreed with by the funder. Printing, scanning, ordering supplies – it all soon adds up. Logistics also need considering – how are the shoeboxes going to be delivered to their intended countries and who is going to take them? Who will receive them once they arrive and how will they be distributed?
  • Members of staff will need supervising for projects, whether great or small. This will involve line-management and on-going support for the duration of the programme of activities.
  • You’ve got the funding to deliver a great idea but you need the staff in place to actually go out there and get the work done. This, I imagine, is what most people think of when they think of a charity worker – someone who does the face-to-face work on specific projects. Who is going to go out and further spread the word of the shoebox project, who will pack the shoeboxes, who will go into schools and host shoe-box packing workshops?
  • Evaluation of a project can be a time-consuming task in of itself. It requires an in-depth investigation into whether the project achieved what it set out to achieve and if everything is accounted for. How many shoeboxes were created, how many were shipped, what impact did they have on those that received them?

We as a sector need to promote a better understanding of our work; what we do, exactly how much it costs, and the impact our work is having. The world assumes all of the work we deliver we do so for free when in fact we have approximately 800,000 workers in the sector with a varied skill-set covering, but not limited to: admin, advice and counselling, business development, project management, campaigning, lobbying, community development, conservation, corporate social responsibility, fundraising, health and medical, housing, human rights, international development, policy, PR and events, research, retail, social care, teaching and training, and volunteer management.

There also appears to be movement towards an American-style philanthropic type of funding; however, this could be seen as slightly patronising and is entirely worthy of a blog post in its own right…

The Network of Regional Youth Work Units England is comprised of six independent charities and we are also in danger of being affected by the tarnishing of the sector’s reputation through irresponsible actions of others who happen to share the same profession. Improving the public view of charities is something we take very seriously, evidenced through our organisational approach, through the work we deliver, and the way in which we deliver and monitor that work. Being more open, transparent, and accountable is something the entire sector needs to do in order to rebuild the trust between the public and charities but we also need to promote and celebrate the varied skills we workers in the sector have and inform the public of all stages of project delivery – not just the parts worthy of the photo-opportunity.

Jamie Mercer

Youth Focus: North East

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