Charities: the terrible price of addressing symptoms not causes of social problems

20 Oct 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 30 Jul 2018

Giving out food is uplifting but does not address the causes of hunger

The debate about how to enhance the independence of charities took a new turn this week with a startling intervention from Fiona Weir, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. 

She told the New Philanthropy Capital Conference that the best way for charities to spend their funds is through campaigning for social change.Weir argues that charities should therefore redefine themselves as agents of change, as opposed to delivering services. 

The intervention will be of special interest to charities in Northern Ireland who are digesting the impact of and fall out from the public row between Contact NI and the Public Health Agency over the Lifeline service, an issue analysed in Scope last week.

Before she took on her present role Weir ran the single parent charity Gingerbread which, just like Contact NI, runs a call centre.

She said: “When I think back, it is clear that (campaigning) is where the greatest and lasting impact came from, well out of proportion to the resources we put into it. We saw success in a number of areas, including funding for childcare, but, to take just one of many examples, our campaigning on tax credits saved half a million single parents £700 a year. That is a scale of impact that more helpline calls could never match.

Weir added: “we’re spending too much time on securing contracts, rather than making contracts work for the people we work with. And we are putting far too little funding into campaigning.”

Weir’s argument echo the concerns of the founder of her charity, the industrialist Joseph Rowntree. Rowntree was a visionary who believed that if poverty and other social ills are to be alleviated it is essential to tackle the root causes rather than just the immediate symptoms.

He wrote: “Obvious distress or evil generally evokes so much feeling that the necessary agencies for alleviating it are pretty adequately supported. For example, it is much easier to obtain funds for the famine-stricken people in India than to originate and carry through a searching enquiry into the causes and recurrence of these famines.

“If the enormous volume of the philanthropy of the present day were wisely directed it would, I believe, in the course of a few years, change the face of England. “

It is a simple, obvious and incontestable argument. Yet his words, written in 1904, could just as well have been written this week. The terrible cost of addressing symptoms not cause is all around us every day.

The debate, which Weir is now reviving goes right to the heart of the purpose of charities. Fascinatingly she is able to point to evidence not just that what she is proposing does make more of a difference in alleviating social problems, but that it also has the overwhelming support of the public.

Last year the Charities Aid Foundation published a survey which demonstrated that the public believes that charities are much better shaping government policy than public representatives. It revealed that 84% believe that charities specialising in the relevant area are better placed as opposed to 31% saying councillors and 27% saying MPs.

Almost as striking the same piece of research found that charities were the most trusted in terms of speaking on behalf of disadvantaged people at 76%, five points ahead of the next most trusted, religious leaders.

There is therefore a popular mandate for campaigning, which matches the practical imperative which Weir put like this: “voluntary sector organisations simply cannot adequately support or empower the people we work with without far-reaching social and policy change: the two are closely entwined.”

The case appears unanswerable. Effecting the relevant social reforms would be a far better remedy than simply alleviating some of the symptoms, which is the business many larger charities are now in.

The Charities Aid Foundation goes even further. It states: “Threats to charity advocacy are damaging for a number of reasons. Firstly, restricting charity advocacy runs the risk of removing an outlet that a number of people – particularly those from marginalised backgrounds – rely on to give them a voice in political debate. Secondly, it disempowers donors, many of whom support specific charities because of their advocacy function. Thirdly, it worsens public policy by removing an additional level of scrutiny, whilst also generating poorer policy by ignoring expert evidence and opinion. Finally, it weakens the UK’s status as a liberal and pluralist democracy, and offers an example that other regimes looking to clamp down on civil society can cite to justify their repression.”

If only it were that simple. The central problem is that it is very hard to see how organisations can combine advocacy with service delivery. Some might argue that contracts should have at least some budget for advocacy and that in a democracy, governments should embrace the challenge function charities might bring.

Yet governments are not like that. They are ultimately run by politicians who have their own policy-agenda which may or may not be evidence-based. The Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg, for example, finds food banks “up-lifting” and proof of how compassionate society is. An approach which looked at cause rather than symptoms would instead be looking at why so many people revert to them and asking searching questions about welfare policy: anathema to Rees Mogg’s world view.  

And civil servants are looking for delivery of services that they have designed and want to see this done as cheaply and efficiently as possible. In that mindset, if you don’t like the service, don’t tender to deliver it and make a fuss if you don’t think it is working.  

It is therefore difficult to see how Weir’s vision will be realised and more than a century of incorrectly targeted charitable investment reversed. You can only be truly independent of government when you are financially independent of it.

Perhaps what we really need is a new generation of philanthropists who share Rowntree’s vision of addressing the causes of social ills who can help fund those with the courage to speak truth to power.


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