Role of charity complements that of the State

Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 00:00

Opinion:In an article in this newspaper on November 24th, Kathleen Lynch told us “solidarity is the political form of love”. I agree. In fact I agree with a lot of the article, particularly the fact of our unequal society (which is becoming more unequal) and with her assertion of the structural and institutionalised nature of this inequality.

As a former classmate of the author who has long respected and admired Lynch’s clarity and courage in challenging inequality and the humbug that justifies it, it’s no surprise to find myself in agreement.

However I’d like to cast a somewhat different light on her assertions concerning the place of charity in our society.

I consider charity as the community’s expression of love and solidarity. It’s the impulse that compels people to become involved in a local sports club, to help out in a day centre, to help alleviate poverty and homelessness. Charities are the entities that formalise this goodwill and expression of solidarity into sustained efforts to change realities.

Of course some charities can be patronising or ineffective. Certainly some fundraising is crass and cringe-making. But it’s important to take a more considered view that puts the role of charity and charities into perspective.

Political dimension

The vast majority of charities have a clear understanding of what they can – and cannot – do. Most have a highly developed understanding of the political dimension of their work. Many were founded to respond to a specific need but have since combined advocacy with their service provision because they have come to appreciate the need for action at structural and policy levels.

It’s not my experience that “charitable religious, voluntary and professional groups claim to be able to act in lieu of the State”. Charities cannot, and should not attempt to, supplant the State.

No charity can solve the problem of homelessness, of child poverty, of unemployment. But they can shed light on the existence and characteristics of problems, and demonstrate what works in tackling them. And in witnessing the daily human consequences of such problems, it is legitimate for charities to bring proposals to the political table.

It is not the case, as the article seems to imply, that if we did have a progressive and egalitarian system of taxation there would no longer be a need for charity. The roles of charities and the State in responding to human vulnerability and marginalisation are not mutually exclusive – it is not a question of either/or. There are some things only the State can do, others only charities can do.

Dignity of citizens

It is for the State to assure the survival with dignity of all its citizens. It is for charities to respond quickly and flexibly to emerging needs, to innovate, to challenge conventional service models and wisdom – and to identify and challenge the State’s shortcomings.

Casting the work of charities as demeaning, involving supplication and the judgmental abuse of power is grossly unfair. Charities are typically all too aware of the inherent risks of the power differential and scrupulously seek to avoid the unintended consequences of their work. Reference to the Charities Act 2009 is ironic – charities would welcome regulation and it’s outrageous the Government has chosen to defer its implementation.

Those who work for charities, and their boards, tend to be pragmatists, not ideologues. They recognise that the achievement of an egalitarian society would render many charities redundant. That would be welcome but, while they await such radical transformation, they do their best to respond to need.

Charities respond to the fallout from our unequal society. Many campaign to demonstrate the urgent need for societal change. Ultimately, shaping our society’s priorities, structures and taxation system is the prerogative of the people.

In the meantime, the reality, whether we like it or not, is that this is a critical season for fundraising, the proceeds from which will enable much-needed supports to be provided to vulnerable and marginalised people, both at home and abroad, throughout the year – not just for Christmas.

Owen Keenan is director of Middlequarter, which advises charitable and non-profit organisations and foundations on management and strategy. He was chief executive of Barnardos from 1990 to 2005

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