Have charities become too corporate?

Many charities have long ceased to challenge the powers that be.

Joseph Blake is a freelance journalist, co-founder of Transition Heathrow and campaigner with Plane Stupid

Mainstream charities and NGOs have become corporatised, choosing relationships with corporates and government instead of grassroots social change movements.

Of course charities do good work by supporting vulnerable people, but this isn’t enough.

This week, the Lobbying Bill was discussed again in Parliament. Rightly charities are up in arms at being silenced; but have they not already chosen to silence themselves?

One of the biggest critics of the Lobbying Bill, the Association of Voluntary Organisations, wrote in the Guardian last year under the headline ‘Charities must continue to challenge the powers that be’. Author of the article, Sir Stephen Bubb, has missed the boat: the fact is that charities have long ceased to challenge the powers that be.

The clearest evidence of the pact between senior staff at the big charities, politicians and corporates lies in the total absence of a radical voice from the charity sector in recent times.

Where are all the mainstream disabled charities up in arms against the devastating cuts to disabled services? This has been left to the very vocal but relatively small and under funded groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

This applies across the board. Where are all the mainstream child poverty charities taking action against government policies which have led to one in six children living in poverty in the UK?

The problem is that campaigning for mainstream charities is too much like a game of chess. Everything is timid and tactical – better off producing a glossy brochure than taking to the streets. It’s a two steps forward, two steps backward approach, where “all are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left”, said Peter Buffett writing recently in the New York Times.

Fundamentally, charities refrain from addressing structural issues. They are highly capable of dealing with the fallout of people who suffer in society, but they do not address the systems and structures which lie at the root of that suffering.

Charities also speak on behalf of others, which can be problematic.

Sid Baility, a DPAC member who previously worked for Disability Charity SCOPE as a project manager for five years, said:

“There is a shortfall of disabled people in senior positions. What is worse is that charities such as SCOPE increasingly run programmes and services on the basis of what will most likely receive funding, instead of what disabled people actually need.”

These issues of representation create a situation whereby charities’ primary concern is their own survival: the issues which are supposed to motivate them are relegated to second place.

Writing on this issue, disabled rights activist Mike Oliver said:

“Disabled people have more reasons than most to be critical of charities. Over the years, they have isolated us, incarcerated us, ignored us and spoken on our behalf as if they knew what we needed or wanted. They have begged on the streets for us and used us without our permission to raise money to support their bloated bureaucracies and out of touch governing councils.”

Leonard Cheshire Disability have also found themselves in the spotlight before. Charlie Smith, an ex-member of staff, spoke about major grants the organisation received from the likes of BAE Systems and Japan Tobacco International:

“Leonard Cheshire himself said that ‘anywhere there is a need for us we will be there, but we should be working towards building a society where we’re not needed’. When I worked for Leonard Cheshire Disability we literally took funding from an organisation that is directly responsible for making people disabled. I have lost all faith in charities”.

There are strong comparisons here with the December Comic Relief  and Save The Children BBC Panorama revelations.

Part of the problem is that power and money is held by a minority. Well-meaning people who are engaged within more grassroots organisations know that these types of groups just don’t receive the funding to pay full or even part-time staff.

These types of people then get sucked into the charitable industrial complex because they need to earn a living. It’s fair enough, but is a depressing process where once radical activists become professionalised and co-opted.

The launch of Edge Fund in the last year is an interesting development as they are one of the first funding networks in the UK to rule out funding to charities.

Charities should continue fighting the lobbying bill but then must take a long hard look at themselves and what there role has become in society.

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