2014, politics, and charities

January 10, 2014 at 15:15

I am trying to ascertain whether my current outlook for the year ahead is one of optimism or pessimism.  On the one hand there are huge challenges ahead, both for society and for the charity sector.  On the other, the economy is slowly recovering, unemployment continues to decrease and there is a World Cup, and that’s always fun.  I have come to the conclusion that I am somewhere in between the two.

In 2014 there are some big issues that are going to carry on being thumped back and forth in a metaphorical political game (a bit like tennis, only more Boris than Andy). Cost of living’s the big one, with all the political parties positioning themselves as the party for working families, or is it just ‘hard-working’ ones?

Labour wants us to know that the Conservative party is forcing a desolate existence; the Conservatives want us to know it’s all Labour’s fault.  And aside from finger pointing, there are also those issues which are creeping up the agenda for all. 

Immigration, for example, is gathering more air time. In their Tuesday broadcast the BBC revealed ‘the Truth About Immigration’ (the whole truth and nothing but the truth?). The Government wants to demonstrate a harder line, especially on European migrants where they can criticise Labour for being too lax; and politicians are keen to dispel the idea that immigration is taboo.  The (compelling) economic arguments for immigration are almost an aside; Nigel Farage was featured on the Today programme this week expressing his concerns about the ‘social impact’. George Osborne’s speech on Monday focussed on immigration and welfare. 

The point of this is not to add to the emerging debate on immigration (as interesting as it is).  It’s to demonstrate that the way politicians and the media approach certain subjects is changing – and for the sector this is something we are implicitly aware of – nothing is exempt from scrutiny, even charities.  The BBC Panorama show on Comic Relief, the Times’ revelations on the Cup Trust, the Telegraph’s concerns over charity CEO salaries, and attention such subjects have received in parliament, are all starting to make us nervous.   

So why be optimistic at all?  An article featured in the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network assessed whether the sector could ‘return from the ashes’ following a tumultuous 2013.  An interesting line because it indicates not what’s to come, but what the sector has been through.  We have lost charities, we have lost amazing services, we have lost important infrastructure and resource and, in some places, we have lost reputation.  At the same time charities are not defined by only these elements, but by people, by voluntary action, responding to need, operating for impact, not profit.  This is all still there.  In an improving economic environment we can only hope that things will get better. 

The Charity Commission too has had a bit of a wake-up call as a result of the Cup Trust debacle.  Yes, this is going to be a challenging year, but we are hopefully going to end up with a regulatory system which engenders more trust in the sector.  If someone had said two years ago that the Commission and HMRC would be looking at working together, and even looking to develop a joint registration system, we would have been delighted (I admit, the enthusiasm may not have caught on outside CFG, but it really is a good thing I promise).  The Government also shocked us this week by slackening a little on the lobbying bill; a nice little reminder that sometimes someone is listening, even when it feels like they’re not. 

So, in this light charities can only do what they do best: respond effectively to the challenges facing their beneficiaries and them, champion their causes, and continue to adapt. Happy New Year.