An article for Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network by Joseph Blake this week suggested that grassroots campaigners are ‘more likely thank big charities to deliver real change’. Blake went on to say that if just a fraction of the funds that go to the largest charities were directed to the smallest it would make a huge difference.
One can argue over whether there is evidence to support this argument, but my experience of over 20 years of working in the charity sector, both with small grassroots groups and larger charities, leads me to subscribe to the view that ‘small is beautiful’ when it comes to social change. But there are caveats to that…
Successful campaigns that realise genuine social change at a transformative scale, tend not to be small. They can be grassroots in conception and distributive and participative in their approach but they generally grow and lose at least some of those characteristics as they do so. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam – all huge international NGOs now with large infrastructure behind them and significant resources – all started out as small grassroots campaigns. Things change. And sometimes they have to.
The argument that more funding should be directed at small local community groups is not a new one – indeed I spent much of my time as Urban Forum Chief Executive conveying this message to government and other funders. And I think Blake is absolutely right in suggesting that just a small redistribution of funds from big to small would make a tremendous difference to social justice.
But it’s worth noting, as Paul Slatter pointed out on twitter, that much of the £64bn that goes to registered charities is for delivering services rather than campaigning. Indeed if the Coalition has their way the amount going to charities for campaigning would probably be zero. Organisations like the National Coalition for Independent Action have long argued that delivering public services under contract severely compromises the independence of the charity sector to speak out and advocate strongly for change. It’s a position I have some sympathy with, though I’ve never felt personally inhibited from speaking out because of funding received from government or anyone else.
Many in the not for profit sector accept and advocate for the arguments set out in the Spirit Level – that inequality in society is bad for all of society, affluent and poor alike, and that the more equal a society is, the better it is for everyone. I find the evidence compelling and have regularly used it to support the cause of social justice. However, I also believe that the same arguments apply equally to the inequality of the not for profit sector – namely that inequality within the sector is unhealthy and bad for all those committed to social justice and social change. Far fewer Spirit Level advocates seem concerned with that sectorial inequality though. And that concerns me.
The Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure’s published its report last week, and I think that the role of infrastructure in supporting the redistribution of power and wealth within the sector is key. At a national level, in particular, there has been a tendency for the larger and better resourced charities and NGOs to influence the agendas of the national bodies that exist to reflect the VCS’s interests. Government too has for some time preferred to listen to the larger organisations than to hear the voices of smaller grassroots groups. The demise of Urban Forum is just one example of this.
Big Society was, we were told, about platoons of small community groups and local people coming to the fore. It was about bottom-up change.
Sadly, in reality, it has proven to be fool’s gold, with the smaller charities continuing to be excluded from the party and crazy wasteful vanity projects like the Big Society Network hovering up millions of pounds of public money.
As we go in to a general election knowing whatever the outcome, funding will be tight, perhaps it’s time for a debate about the importance of social change and if we consider it to be important, what the best way of achieving it might be?