Charities will repay more policy attention, not just better funding


The writer is a former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service

Since the start of the pandemic, the UK has relied more than ever on civil society, including the charities and other not-for-profit organisations that complement the public and private sectors. Last week’s Budget recognised this in a substantial way, pledging £100mn for the frontline charities and community organisations seeing increased demand from vulnerable people.

That cash comes at a critical time — helping to plug the £800mn drop in real-terms income that Pro Bono Economics estimates charities will suffer over the next year. But the sector needs something even harder to find than money: it needs policy attention too, because we’re not making the most of what it has to offer. This holds back the whole UK.

Chairing the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, I have spent the past two years examining why this is the case and how we can unlock its full potential for improving our lives, our environment and our communities.

One of the clearest conclusions is that we need to strengthen relationships between civil society organisations and policymakers. More than nine in 10 (92 per cent) MPs and councillors are already in contact with charities on a regular basis, but the number dwindles when we look at civil servants. Nearly half (45 per cent) of civil servants were found to have no contact with charities: this means they are developing, assessing and making policy recommendations to ministers without the real-world, on-the-ground insights charities can provide.

Most policymakers understand the significant role of charities in raising awareness, bringing communities together, finding innovative solutions to social problems, providing evidence on public issues and improving society. But government should bring charities into the formal consultation process — we need that well-informed feedback on policy recommendations.

In return, charities can provide evidence to inform decisions and highlight the areas of greatest need. Social sector organisations only make up 3 per cent of members of the Treasury’s working groups — this may go some way to explaining the department’s resistance to preventing problems before they occur, something charities excel at.

The failures can create severe political problems. Attempts to stop small boats have failed again and again — this will continue while refugee charities remain locked out of Whitehall. I know from my time as head of the civil service that it’s all too easy for ministers only to talk to the people who’ll tell them what they want to hear — charities tell them what they need to hear, which is far more important for the health of the country.

When it comes to harnessing the power of philanthropy, we badly need to understand the barriers to collaboration. Appointing a national “philanthropy champion” would help — an individual responsible for bringing the philanthropists and Whitehall together. After all, they are often tackling the same challenges. A network of local champions would help ensure larger and more effective support and funding reaches the places in greatest need.

Improving the scale, distribution and funding for civil society is fundamental for a sector that has never been in greater demand than now. More grantmakers need to offer long-term, flexible funding, so charities can invest in their capabilities. Funders need to streamline their applications and processes to make funds more accessible to grassroots charities. This is particularly important for smaller organisations that rely on volunteers and lack expertise in grant applications.

Civil society already makes enormous contributions to both economic and social progress. But to ensure this continues, we need more effective links between the public, private and charity sectors if we are to elevate the impact of all three.