Stephen Bell, CEO at Changing Lives, shares his thoughts on the importance of the government listening to and working with charities.
Yesterday I read a troubling article written by Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, originally published in the Telegraph and available to read here. In this piece he talks about the need for charities to focus on their core mission funded by donations from benevolent members of the public, rather than relying on government grants and ‘seeking to burnish their woke credentials’. Whilst I have no strong opinions on whether charities named after controversial historical figures should seek to distance themselves from their namesake, as is the main focus of his criticism, there is an implicit undertone in the article that his message to charities is: get back to your real work and stay out of politics. Oh and stop asking the government for more money. Whilst accusing charities of getting too political, Oliver Dowden himself is using his political influence to appoint a Chair of the Charity Commission who will support his political aims.
The article betrays a concerning lack of understanding about how many charities operate. Yes, many smaller charities have very specific practical goals that can be delivered through donations from the public. But charities also play a crucial role in delivering many services for the government. We are not a ‘nice to have’ extra that do good things if people are kind enough to give us money. We are not coming to the government with a begging bowl – we are coming to them as competent providers with years of expertise who provide a valuable service. Throughout the pandemic many statutory services closed their doors. Charities like Changing Lives kept going and kept supporting those where a phone call isn’t enough.
Oliver Dowden also acknowledges that charities can reach people that the government cannot. On this we agree, but this also is precisely why we refuse to stay silent and stay out of politics. We seek to amplify the voices of those who have not been listened to – those who have experienced homelessness, addiction, sexual exploitation. The people whose experiences many members of the public, and certainly many government ministers, could not even begin to imagine. How is the government meant to make decisions that will genuinely help these people if they do not know what they want or need?
We have fantastic staff who go above and beyond to support people going through extremely difficult circumstances, but they can only do so much and it is the responsibility of the government to tackle the root causes of disadvantage and the systems that keep people trapped. In order to truly change lives we will not remain silent on these matters. This isn’t about being critical and blaming the government for all the problems we see. We seek to share our experience and our learning, to offer solutions and to collaborate with those who have the power to change things. Will they listen and work with us?