Nathan Dick, Head of Policy and Communications at Clinks, writes about submitting evidence to House of Lords Select Committee’s inquiry on charities, and how the report affects charities.
Submitting evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee’s inquiry on charities gave us the chance to talk Parliament about our members - explaining the vital role of voluntary organisations, describing the barriers that sometimes get in the way, and showing how they can be pulled down. Our response to the inquiry made nine recommendations – a lot of which were echoed by the Committee.
The Committee called their report ‘Stronger charities for a stronger society’, and when Baroness Pitkeathley launched the report she said,
“Charities are the lifeblood of society. They play a fundamental role in our civil life and do so despite facing a multitude of challenges. Yet for them to continue to flourish, it is clear that they must be supported and promoted.
"We found that charities lead the way with innovation, but that this is at risk of being stifled by the 'contract culture'. And while advocacy is a sign of a healthy democracy, and is a central part of charities' role, this role has been threatened by Government.
"We hope that charities will be encouraged by this report; that the Government will respect their role; and that in addition it will value the connections charities have with all sections of society, and encourage the vital scrutiny they provide."
What the report says
It would be foolish of me to try and summarise all 100 conclusions and recommendations made in the report. But there are some that jump out as positive and worthy of government action. I have listed them below under the headings in the report.
1. ‘The role and contribution of charities’
- The committee draws useful conclusions about the shape and size of the sector, noticing its diversity and the fact that the vast majority of organisations are very small. This led the committee to focus a lot of the report on small and medium sized charities, which is helpful. But perhaps more importantly it highlights the problems with one-size-fits-all policies for working with the sector. It also reflects that charities not only provide services to people in need, they also shape laws, government policies and society as a whole.
2. Improving governance and accountability
- Partnerships between public, private and sector organisations can support and facilitate charities.
- Charities should aim for a high standard in governance – although this will necessarily be different from very large to very small organisations.
3. Trustee skills and training
- Training and development for trustees is essential and the committee recommends that infrastructure organisations (like Clinks) look to identify any shortcomings in existing training provision, especially for small organisations, and take action to address them.
4. Board diversity and turnover
- We welcome the Committees calls to increase the diversity of boards, including having people with lived experience on them. We will support the sector to do this and are looking to increase service user involvement across the sector. Although we are concerned that the Charities Act may have the unfortunate effect of lessening applications from people with criminal records to join trustee boards. See our joint briefing with Unlock for more information.
5. Executive leadership
- In Clinks’ submission to the inquiry we highlighted the need to develop leaders in our sector. In turn the Committee have recommended that organisations like ours take the lead in partnership with government, academics, research institutions, and the business community to identify opportunities to develop and find leadership programmes.
6. Transparency, accountability and impact
- We welcome the committee’s call that the voluntary sector’s work should be robustly and independently evaluated, and that these evaluations should be considered by public sector commissioners when awarding contracts. Although we are also clear that organisations should be funded to conduct independent evaluations when delivering services, and that these evaluations are proportionate to the size of the service and/or funding.
- We also welcome the recommendations that the Office for Civil Society develop guidance for public sector commissioners on how to set contractual reporting requirements in a way that reduces the bureaucratic burden on voluntary organisations.
7. Funding: grants, contracts and commissioning
- We have long argued that the commissioning landscape unfairly excludes smaller organisations and the Committee agrees. It has called for contracting authorities to allow for smaller contracts, potentially opening up opportunities for smaller organisations.
- The Committee recommends that commissioning is based on impact and social value rather than lowest cost.
- There is a call for government to produce guidance on how public sector commissioners can counteract smaller voluntary organisations being used as ‘bid candy’ through the design of new contracts that prevent larger organisations from exploiting smaller organisations.
- We agree with the committee that voluntary organisations and their service users are not being consulted with enough to design services, meaning that their skills and expertise are not utilised. The Committee is right to recommend that public sector commissioners need to adopt a genuine partnership approach to solve this problem.
- The committee agreed with our recommendation that the system needs better joint-working, especially by commissioners who should be looking at whole-system and whole-person commissioning processes. The work of the MEAM coalition has shown us that people with multiple needs require a far more joined up approach from all sectors.
- We welcome the recommendation that public sector commissioners should have regard for the sustainability of the organisations which they commission – and that this means including an expectation that realistic and justifiable core costs are included in contracts.
- We completely support the Committee’s recommendation that grant funding be revitalised; this was a key part of the evidence Clinks submitted to the Committee. Both in regards to funding innovation and allowing charities to take risks and experiment with new services.
8. Charities and digital technology
- We accept the challenge handed to us by the Committee to “share knowledge and best practice on innovation and digitisation across the sector and co-ordinate training opportunities, at minimal cost, for charities with limited digital experience”.
9. The role of charity advocacy
- The Committee rightly welcomes the withdrawal of the anti-advocacy clause in public sector grant agreements, stating that “Charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of any society; advocacy is a central part of their work and a sign of a healthy democracy”. We wholeheartedly agree and welcome this statement on the role of our members in improving society through advocacy and campaigning.
Awaiting the government response
I think we should take heart from this report and its recommendations. The last year has seen charities in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, such as errors in leadership and poor fundraising practices. The subsequent attempts by Government to restrict the ability of charities to speak out and have an independent voice were unnecessary and have largely been undone. But the mood music has been toxic, and although our part of the sector rarely relies on public giving to support its work that toxicity can create an environment of distrust between the public and charities that is truly damaging. This is something the sector will need to counteract as much as it can.
We trust that our members will focus on what we do as a sector. We would all be far worse off if it were not for the creativity, compassion, thoughtfulness, and resourcefulness of the sector. The fact that voluntary organisations are often local people recognising issues and problems that they want to solve should make them a cherished part of our society and an important part of the public (and policy) debate about how we tackle disadvantage and support those in need.
So what next? At Clinks we will wait to see what the Government’s response to this reports recommendations are, and we will keep you up to date