Ed Howker

All in a good cause?

Today’s big charities are slick operations that spend huge sums on running costs and marketing, says Ed Howker. Worse, many of them have been annexed by the government

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Today’s big charities are slick operations that spend huge sums on running costs and marketing, says Ed Howker. Worse, many of them have been annexed by the government

One Christian Aid week, aged seven, I collected charity envelopes with my mum from the terraced homes that rise out of the Calder Valley. Dressed in a blue anorak, I was every bit the budding charity mugger, but there is one doorstep I particularly remember: as usual we asked the occupier if they had ‘ever considered giving any money to Christian Aid?’ ‘Sorry,’ said the middle-aged woman, ‘I don’t give to charity.’ At the time, I thought that seemed monstrous: selfishness dressed-up like a principle. But the more I’ve learnt about Britain’s large charities, the more a little scepticism makes sense.

How much of the money we donate actually reaches good causes? The answer is never quite clear with today’s highly organised and slickly marketed charities. Some seem more like mini political organisations, advancing their cause by lobbying government and, in many cases, working for it. Take Christian Aid, which now has a budget of £82 million — but spends just £54 million of it doing what it says on the charity box: emergency and development aid. That is inefficient. But when you consider that Christian Aid doesn’t really work in Britain, but employs 453 staff here — at an average cost of £37,000 each — and only 306 abroad, inefficient looks indelicate.

More startlingly, a fat lump of Christian Aid’s resources is set aside for what it euphemistically describes as ‘campaigning, advocacy and education’ — or, in other words, lobbying. Last year Christian Aid spent a valiant £12 million putting their point across, primarily in Britain, and almost identical amounts were spent by Oxfam and the RSPB (although the latter describe their lobbying as ‘education, publications and films’). The purpose of some of these campaigns may trouble a well-meaning donor, since they often seem to have a political edge. Today, if you buy your Christmas cards from the RSPB, you might not only be funding the preservation of the Great Crested Grebe but the lesser-spotted New Labour stitch-up, while Christian Aid sometimes looks better suited to fighting elections than poverty.

Since its beginnings as a postwar reconstruction group, Christian Aid has suffered from mission creep: gradually adopting a more muscular political tone. In the 1980s it attacked banks for demanding high interest payments for development loans. At the millennium, the charity pushed for the reform of trade rules. But it wasn’t long before it was flirting with anti-capitalism, printing posters comparing ‘free trade’ to the Asian tsunami in 2005. Though Christian Aid maintained that it was ‘not anti-free trade and we have no objection to profit’, Martin Drewry, its head of campaigns at the time, explained his tactics to Socialist Worker magazine. ‘The development movement is coming of age politically... most of all it’s about fighting the forces of neo-liberalism that are forcing poor countries to privatise their services and open their markets to the rich countries’ businesses.’

It wasn’t meant to be this way. According to the Institute of Fundraising: ‘a registered charity is not permitted to have political objectives or undertake political lobbying other than in a generally educational sense’, but Christian Aid’s ‘politicised’ transformation over the last few decades has coincided with what some see as a weakening of the Charity Commission’s approach to regulating it and 170,000 other charities. The Commission has slashed the number it investigates. One former worker describes it as ‘very laissez-faire, regular tests have gone by the board. Under the Charities Act 2006, the Commission have to demonstrate that a charity’s work has to be for the public benefit but it’s fair to say that’s very subjective.’

The notion of charity, of course, has been politically vexatious. Many conservatives are great advocates of community-driven fundraising schemes, and much of the Cameron agenda is about incubating and promoting charities: ‘rolling forward society’, to use the Westminster cant. Work, neither for oneself nor for the state but for family, community and broader society is at the heart of conservative orthodoxy. By comparison, the left’s relationship with charity has been somewhat tortured, with many seeing ‘good deeds’ as the domain of the state alone. Even by the late 1980s, Gordon Brown held to that view, describing charity as ‘a sad and seedy competition for public pity’. All this changed under Tony Blair. He saw an opportunity to build a new constituency for his party — organisations that would be Labour’s fellow travellers — and so forged relationships between the large charities and Labour which were lubricated with cash. Our cash.

According to figures compiled by the International Policy Network, between 2008 and 2011 the Department for International Development will give £395 million pounds to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), most of them UK-based charities. Few of those who receive the funds are subject to any sort of tendering process and some of the projects are most odd. One £10 million scheme involving Christian Aid sends ‘young British adults from less advantaged backgrounds’ to volunteer, at taxpayers’ expense, in developing countries. A noble cause, one might argue, but one which — critics argue — turn the NGOs into QGOs: quasi-governmental organisations.

According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, 25,000 British charities received more than three quarters of their funding from government. Of the others, Oxfam received nearly £40 million in public funding — £35 million from the British and EU governments alone, Christian Aid received more than £11 million from Britain and the EU; the World Wildlife Fund £4.8 million, while the RSPB received nearly £20 million. So close to government are the RSPB that at the start of the month they booked out the London Aquarium to host a party to ‘celebrate’ the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act with Environment Secretary Hilary Benn as the guest of honour.

But the charities will do more than throw a party when required. At the G8 summit in Gleneagles and even in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, they were out marching, bringing activists, waving banners — all broadly supportive of the government’s position and calling on the rest of the world to adopt it. Gordon Brown himself joined the G8 march. It was a seismic moment: government strategists working with their counterparts in big charities. In marketing they call this ‘Astroturf’ — it looks like grassroots, but it’s synthetic.

The leaders of these charities still make the claim that they are independent, but this is nonsense when they are in receipt of millions of pounds of government money and when Labour seeks to make political capital from its relationship with them. In his speech to the Labour party conference this year, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband explained how it all works: ‘If you and your neighbours are supporters of Save the Children, Christian Aid and Oxfam and you want funding for development to continue for the next five years, tell them to trust the people who raised the funding, not the Tories, who opposed it every step of the way.’ The charities made no squeals of protest in being declared as part of Labour’s campaign platform — united against the wicked Conservatives.

There are signs that public opinion is turning. Three years ago, a poll by the Centre for Social Justice asked, ‘If you only had £200 to give to a good cau se, who would you give to?’ Only 4 per cent opted for a national charity such as Oxfam or Christian Aid. A full 31 per cent said they would seek out a local charity or church working with needy people — organisations too small to be politicised. But the poll, of course, assumes that people have a choice. This year, each household will — through the tax system — pay an average £200 to a charity of the Labour government’s choice. So next time a Christian Aid volunteer comes to your door, do not say, ‘I don’t give to charity.’ If you pay your taxes, you already do.