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Civil society sounds grandiose, but what is it?

So off we go with the name game once more.

A couple of years ago the Conservatives said the Office of the Third Sector would be renamed the Office of  Civil Society to denote the increased importance they wanted to give it. Then they said there had been a rethink and money was too tight for such a bigging-up. And just before the election they went back to plan A, not because money was less tight again but because David Cameron didn’t like the term ‘third sector.’

He was probably influenced by the sentimentalists who argue that it should, if anything, be the ‘first sector’ and that ‘third sector’ is too easily equated with ‘third rate.’ So the Office of Civil Society it is, and Nick Hurd rejoices in the name of Minister for Civil Society. Well, at least they stopped short of the Office of Big Society.

But the questions still remain: what is civil society, and do people understand the term any more readily than ‘third sector’, or the various other unsatisfactory alternatives that have been touted?

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has firmly hitched its wagon to the ‘civil society’ horse, as has one sector media organisation. The NCVO Almanac makes it clear that civil society, in its view, includes universities and trade associations, for example. Does the NCVO, or the media organisation, or the new OCS, take a day to day interest in or have any responsibility for, those parts of society? Of course they don’t. Maybe there’s a grandiosity and feel-good effect created by the term. At least the NCVO has stopped short of  becoming the National Council for Civil Society Organisations.

‘Civil society’ is a term imported from countries with entirely different political, social and philosophical traditions. Most people in Britain don’t readily recognise what it is meant to mean, and the attempt to use it creates a raft of inconsistency and contradiction. Are charities, trade associations and housing associations really in the same boat?

The term might slowly become adapted and catch on – who knows? But the fact is there is no short phrase that is capable of satisfactorily and simultaneously encompassing the huge range and size of charities, social enterprises and community organisations in this country. The wide and useful American term ‘non-profit’, even in its Anglicised form ‘not for profit’, would not cover social enterprises.

So all that’s happened here, really, is that one unsatisfactory term has been swapped for another – on one man’s whim, in the case of the OCS. And no doubt when we get half-used to the new name there will be another change.

Will charities be complicit in the public-sector jobs cull?

Could a little-noticed strike brewing in Southampton signify problems to come for the big society programme of the new government?

Earlier this week librarians were balloted on industrial action over the city council’s plan to replace six full-time staff with volunteers. The council says the move will save £137,000. The issue goes right to the heart of coalition plans to, in the words of education secretary Michael Gove, “harness the idealism of volunteers” and involve citizens in the running of public services just as the axe will be falling on public spending.

The Conservative manifesto promised to “empower communities” to take over amenities such as parks and libraries that were “under threat” – presumably from budget cuts. The Building the Big Society document, published by the coalition on Wednesday, reiterated this idea with a commitment to legislate to help communities save local facilities threatened with closure. This plan has been endorsed by many in the sector including community group umbrella body, Community Matters.

As Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan noted at the Charity Finance Directors’ Group conference last Tuesday, the key issue for the sector is whether voluntary organisations back the transfer of previously tax-funded public services to groups of volunteers as the state reigns in its responsibilities. Mulgan gave the example of a bus service taken over by a semi-volunteer-led organisation. Is this a good thing?

There are a variety of issues. Will the public react positively to being asked to help deliver services that they thought they were paying to receive through their council tax? Will the sector be seen as complicit in making cuts? As noted by many pundits, the ‘big society’ did not play particularly well on the doorstep during the election campaign.

The Network of National Volunteer-Involving Agencies, which includes CSV, Barnardo’s and the National Trust among others, released a manifesto this week calling for more volunteering opportunities in public services.

That desire seems certain to be fulfilled. But will those opportunities include previously paid-for core jobs being delivered for nothing by hastily trained volunteers? The sector needs to decide where it stands, because the question will become pressing very soon.

Nick Hurd claimed to be serious at his first meet-and-greet, but mutterings were audible

Earlier this week I went to the first meet-and-greet by Nick Hurd with the sector since his appointment as the new charities minister.
It wasn’t exactly at the coalface: it was a small gathering of around 50 senior charity staff at a smart central London hotel. But it was a good debut for Hurd. He charmed his audience by joking that the Downing Street launch of the ‘big society’ agenda was the first, and probably the last, time he’d have his bum on a seat at the Cabinet table.

He said he was not allowed to use the phrase ‘third sector’ any more because “the boss doesn’t like it”. And in a short speech, he reiterated his three priorities. You’ve guessed it: making it easier to run a charity; getting more resources to the sector and making it easier for charities to work with the state. “I know I keep repeating this, but I’ll repeat it until people understand,” he said.

The chatter after Hurd left (he dashed straight off to speak about workplace giving at a House of Lords dinner) suggested the sector has warmed to its new representative.

Guests welcomed his 18 months’ experience shadowing the post, saying they hoped this marked a break from Labour’s revolving door of third sector ministers. And they were glad that the rhetoric about supporting charities, at least, seemed to stem from Cameron himself.
But they raised doubts about whether Hurd’s well-intentioned words would translate into anything tangible. One senior figure expressed frustration that Hurd seemed to see volunteering as a catch-all solution without understanding that supporting volunteers and paying their expenses could cost charities as much as the minimum wage.

And many expressed serious concerns that government grants would be cut before they were due to expire, and that Cameron and Hurd’s enthusiasm for involving charities in service provision would not filter down to local authorities if the private sector offered similar services more cheaply.

In that context, Hurd’s words were perhaps carefully chosen: “I hope to send a serious message about our will and our serious intent.”  

Volunteer or else! How a nudge could turn into coercion

Is the concept of volunteering as time freely given to the community being subtly undermined?

A couple of recent developments suggest that, while no one is being coerced exactly into volunteering, it could soon become an expectation which influences whether individuals get housing or progress in their career. The carrot of material self-interest is certainly being dangled in front of people to encourage them to volunteer and perhaps the stick is being readied in the background

In March, Manchester City Council announced a new policy on access to its council homes. New bands were established to prioritise access to housing for particular kinds of people. Community workers and volunteers who make their neighbourhoods “a good place to live, work and play” are to be moved up a band, so they can be re-housed faster.

Meanwhile, the Conservative election manifesto promised to transform the civil service into the “civic service” by recognising “participation in social action” in civil servants’ appraisals.

We don’t yet know if this policy will be adopted by the Lib-Con coalition, but the intention seems to be to make volunteering a factor in whether public sector workers receive pay rises or promotions (although the likelihood of public sector workers getting pay rises in the current climate, even if they volunteered six nights a week, is pretty slim).

The idea is reminiscent of then-CBI director-general Digby Jones’s draconian proposal in 2004 to withhold pay rises from staff in the private and public sectors unless they could show they have volunteered for a charity. You will volunteer or else!

The Conservatives aren’t going that far, but they clearly want to muster as many forms of encouragement as they can to get the public to contribute to their ‘big society’. Their manifesto also promised to “use the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to make volunteering and community participation something they do on a regular basis”.

The popular term for this is “nudging” and economist Richard Thaler, co-author of the behavioural economics manifesto Nudge, has been lined up as an adviser for the new government.

This creates a dilemma for volunteering organisations. One issue is whether those nudged will actually feel cajoled or bribed and resent the need to volunteer. The other is whether people will begin volunteering for completely ulterior motives.

Depaul UK’s iHobo app sets a new standard

Charity iPhone apps have until now been like buses: you wait ages, then two come at once. Last week saw the launches of “iHobo” from homelessness charity Depaul UK, and Marie Curie Cancer Care’s “Blooming Great Tea Party”.

iHobo, as you may have read, is an “interactive video embedded experiential” application, where iPhone users take responsibility for a virtual homeless young man’s survival as he guides us through his daily struggle.

It’s provoking outrage. “These are real people, not f***ing Tamagotchi,” said one irate commentator on advertising industry website Brand Republic last week; “shameful” and “patronising”, tutted another.

Marie Curie, meanwhile, has opted for a gentler approach to support next month’s Blooming Great Tea Party fundraising campaign. Its app does nothing more controversial than let users decide who is making the next round of tea (users enter names, photographs and milk-and-sugar options, then spin a wheel).

So which approach is right? Marie Curie’s is a good app, but Depaul UK’s “Tamagotchi” sets a new standard. Getting users to make life-or-death decisions confronts them with the brutality of life for homeless people. And an effective way to influence elusive young donors is to understand how they experience and understand the world. If they do so through interactive games, then it’s right to risk trying the format.

And it appears the risk is paying off: iHobo has attracted praise in the national press. What’s more, it has started to raise money through its text-to-donate’ prompt at the end of the game. Almost £2,000 is the total so far. Not a huge amount, but as the charity points out, not bad for the early days of a cold fundraising campaign.

Will the new Government stick with the ‘big society’?

At the weekend,  some Tory MPs were complaining anonymously that the big society idea had not gone down well on the doorstep and might even have played a part in denying the Conservatives an overall majority.

Today on Radio 4, Tim Montgomerie, who runs the influential Conservative Home blog,  said that the idea had never been ‘”focus-grouped or poll-tested” – presumably a cardinal sin in the contemporary political world.

And now David Cameron is in Government alongside Nick Clegg, who scored one of the most palpable hits of the election campaign when he ridiculed the ‘big society’ as the “do-it-yourself society.” So where does the notion go from here?

Montgomerie went on to praise the ‘big society’ and say it had  great potential. David Cameron has tried to reassure people that it doesn’t mean the Government washing its hands of social problems, but rather approaching them in a different way.

But the ‘big society’ remains one of the many unknowns about the new government. Who will be the minister in charge? Will the newly flexible Liberal Democrats play along? Will it ever get out the starting blocks as attention focuses on the bigger and more urgent problems of the economy? These are vital questions for voluntary sector in the days to come.

What the sacked chugger told me

Last week I interviewed the face-to-face fundraiser who was dismissed by development charity EveryChild after he left a folder containing donors’ direct debit details on a street in Norwich city centre.
The incident sparked an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which enforces the Data Protection Act.
But when we met, he had a bigger story to tell: a view from the front line of face-to-face fundraising. It was a story of targets, job insecurity, rivalry and frustration as even the best-performing fundraisers worried that a few bad days could cost them their jobs.
This led fundraisers to do things that were “ethically dubious,” he told me, such as pestering and pressuring members of the public and signing up friends and family members, knowing they would cancel their direct debits.
Charities will argue that everyone works to targets these days, and their beneficiaries would lose out if fundraisers didn’t raise funds.
But I think this approach is misguided. Street fundraisers are the first point of contact between a charity and the public, and it only takes a few bad apples to discredit the whole system of face-to-face fundraising which, if done well, can be a good source of income and an effective way of spreading a charity’s message.
The reality is that, like the EveryChild fundraiser, most street fundraisers are unaccustomed to the world of work. They’re young, enthusiastic, idealistic and often deeply committed to a charity’s cause – a great asset for the sector.
But they don’t respond well to being treated as cash cows: this fundraiser told me he felt “expendable” and was treated as “a statistic”. And when things go wrong, they go badly wrong, tarnishing charities in the eyes of people who could otherwise have become valuable donors.
Charities should adopt a different approach: they should lower the targets and reward fundraisers for building good relationships with members of the public, even if those people do not sign up.
They should see fundraisers as ambassadors and awareness-raisers too, perhaps combining ‘prospecting’ with fundraising so fundraisers can offer people the choice of giving immediately or being added to a list of supporters.
Granted, it wouldn’t raise as much money in the short term, and there’s no real guarantee that it would in the long-term either. But happy, committed fundraisers who are less prone to misbehaving – and more inclined to support the charity when they’re older, wealthier and more professional – could be just what the sector needs.
And what of the EveryChild fundraiser? He told me yesterday that he’s got a job at another charity, but not in street fundraising. I expect he’ll do well.

The Community Allowance scheme could lift many out of poverty. Stalling makes no sense

Several months ago Micheal Pyner, chair of the Development Trusts Association, took to the stage at the national conference of his organisation to launch a bitter polemic against the benefits system in the UK.

The system in this country, he said, was not a stepping-stone out of poverty, but a trap which keeps people in. It is not designed to reward initiative, but to keep people quiet. It was, he said “a failed municipal system which must be swept away”.

One of many problems Pyner highlights with the benefits system is that it offers people who are unemployed almost no financial benefit for taking on low-paid work.

In particular, entering part-time work, rather than being rewarded as a first step back to employment, often brings a major financial blow.

If someone earning the minimum wage gets a part-time job, they are likely to earn around £5 more than they would for sitting at home, collecting benefits and watching daytime TV. Help with housing, council tax and medical bills will evaporate, leaving them potentially far worse off.

One of the best ideas to beat this poverty trap is the Community Allowance, which Pyner’s organisation has backed for years. The allowance would offer not-for-profit organisations the chance to recruit people on benefits into part-time work that benefits the community, with no effect on those benefits.

It is a winning proposition for all concerned: the unemployed person gets a job, the community organisation gets a worker. And the Government offers someone on benefits their first step to becoming a taxpayer – at almost no cost to themselves.

Which is why it’s extraordinary that almost three years after it was first proposed – six months after pilots were supposed to start – the allowance still hasn’t had the go-ahead from Government. Whichever party takes power, whoever the new work and pensions secretary may be, they must be persuaded to press ahead with this idea as one of their foremost priorities.

Charities should respect scheduling restrictions on their television ads

The full report explaining the decision by the ASA this week not to uphold five complaints from television viewers about an advert by Care International shines some light on behind-the-scenes to-ing and fro-ing that goes on over scheduling restrictions applied to charity advertising.

The watchdog’s report explains how advertising clearance company Clearcast initially approved the advert with no timing restriction, even though it featured malnourished and distressed children. But after broadcasters expressed doubts, Clearcast added a proviso that television companies should consider carefully whether the ad should be broadcast in breaks around programmes for the under 9s.

Why would a charity seeking direct debits want to advertise on Cartoon Network and Boomerang in the first place? After all, infants won’t be donating £2 a month.

The answer lies in parent’s viewing habits: very often, they half watch and half listen to children’s television, often for hours. So for advertisers, avoiding a timing restriction at all costs – even a “consider carefully” note –becomes a goal in itself. Though intended as advice, such a note can cause broadcasters to balk at screening an ad, which in turn can hinder a charity’s plans to advertise to parents.

Care appears to have respected Clearcast’s decision and was rewarded with the ASA’s backing, but not every charity does so. Some charities and their agencies have been known to beg, plead, threaten, nag and even use emotional blackmail to persuade clearance staff and broadcasters to drop a proposed timing restriction.

How do I know? I used to work at Clearcast’s predecessor, the Broadcast Advertsing Clearance Centre, and I vividly recall how one inernational aid charity chief executive yelled at a colleague: “If people die because of this it will be your fault!” But such railroading more often than not proved counter productive, particularly when viewer complaints came rolling in.

The broadcasters know their  audiences and keep in touch with their views. They are well placed to make sound decisions about scheduling restrictions, and their judgement is usually sound. Charities should respect it.

Cameron pushed his big society, but his charity audience was not convinced

Yesterday I watched David Cameron give a speech about his big society agenda at a meeting hosted by think tank the Centre for Social Justice. 

Previous announcements by the Conservatives about the idea have been relatively well-received by much of the national press, so I was interested to see how an audience that consisted largely of voluntary sector workers would respond. 

Cameron started by thanking Brooke Kinsella, the former Eastenders actor whose brother was stabbed to death in an attack in 2008 and who is now a trustee of an anti-knife crime charity, the Ben Kinsella Trust, for agreeing to become the party’s knife crime ambassador. 
She made a powerful speech in which she described her family’s grief, and said she did not believe Labour had done enough to help voluntary groups that aimed to reduce knife crime.

Cameron told the audience there had always been violence and evil in society, but that the frequency of violent crime and antisocial behaviour “betrays a deep and fundamental problem in our country today”.
The problem, he said, was that the Government had been “hyperactive” in trying to solve society’s problems. The state was “monolithic, inhuman, clumsy and distant,” and it had removed the desire of ordinary people to help their neighbours and their local communities. 
He said the Conservatives’ solution to this would be to “invite charities into the running of our public services.”

The voluntary sector should not be seen as the third sector, he said, but the first. 
Cameron did not mention that more than a third of the voluntary sector’s income already comes from the state. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no policy details of what his plans would mean for charities: would it be more grants; more contracts or bigger contracts? 

I spoke to several charity representatives after the speech, and most seemed unimpressed. The general sense was that, despite the rhetoric, public sector spending cuts were coming and it would be unwise for charities to assume otherwise. 
On the plus side, one said, the Tories’ talk of cutting red tape might mean state funding would be easier to get under a Conservative government, even if there was less of it. 

But perhaps the biggest concern was ideological: audience members felt much of Cameron’s language implied he was impressed by the “do-it-yourself” politics of the 1960s and 70s, when charities such as Shelter were formed because of a realisation that the welfare state was not equipped to cope with all of society’s problems. 
But the state has changed a lot since then, and charities have too.

The Conservatives have a long way to go in convincing the voluntary sector that the same “do it yourself” mentality could work today.