Acevo’s Big Society Commission: what hope for the Big Society?

The acevo Commission on the “Big Society”, to which I gave evidence earlier this year, published its report this morning, calling for a clearer definition of the concept, greater understanding across the “Whitehall machine”, and a stronger delivery partnership with the voluntary sector.

I have joked that (like the Holy Trinity) if the Big Society has been explained so you understand it, it hasn’t been explained properly. In fact the concept is simple: increasing people’s willingness and ability to tackle social problems themselves, rather than looking to the state for professional interventions that at best have become less affordable, and at worst were (for those with complex needs) sometimes disempowering and counterproductive.

Of course, question marks remain over the Government’s ability to distinguish between good and bad interventions: witness the “axe first, ask questions later” approach to the Future Jobs Fund, and the “year zero” quality of initiatives such as the National Citizen Service, with simple, eye-catching methodologies previously rejected by experts as ineffective. This partly accounts for the lukewarm response from the voluntary sector to the Big Society agenda, with charities credibly claiming precedence and superior expertise in engaging the population in tackling social problems, and failing to see much new or exciting in Government policy.

Local Government spokespeople (including Cllr Richard Kemp at the acevo launch today), argue that it is self-contradictory for central Government to define the Big Society agenda, given its focus on localism. This objection involves a category mistake, seeing Big Society as an immediate metholodogy for policy implementation, rather than a (somewhat distant) end-point that may eventually be created by the collaboration of government and intermediary organizations to enable and empower citizens.

It should be clear that “the voluntary sector” as a whole is not necessarily a natural partner for the government in this agenda. While many organizations focus on helping individuals to take greater control of their own lives and local social problems, many others (medical charities for example) will place greater emphasis on maintaining state-funded professional interventions from a limited budget. To the extent that these interventions come under financial pressure from the Government, many campaigning charities will – in fighting their beneficiaries’ corners – become enemies of (or at least obstacles to) state policy. This is, after all, their job.

Creating the Big Society is fundamentally a problem of education, social psychology and asset distribution. It will succeed in so far as people understand social problems, embrace them as their own, and are able to harness the resources and expertise needed to tackle them. In short, will the UK’s most capable people help those less fortunate, in particular by enabling them to help themselves?

The trend of increasing social inequality points to financial resources, at least, becoming more concentrated in the hands of fewer people. This does not necessarily augur well for philanthropy or volunteering, or the Big Society agenda. I recall an account director from a private bank telling me her clients do not feel they can afford to give to charity until they have at least £3m in cash in the bank – roughly 100 times the average gross UK salary. Perhaps high profile philanthropic initiatives such as the “Giving Pledge” will spawn a shift in attitudes, but there is (as yet) scant evidence of this among the UK’s richest.

In reality, with some spectacular exceptions, the wealthy are less compassionate and less inclined to give than the general population, needing extensive “priming” through exposure to social problems before they become willing to help. And yet wealthy people naturally invest large sums in avoiding such exposure, whether through gated communities or private schooling. The middle classes can achieve something of these benefits by moving to the leafy suburbs, or finding religion before sending their children to school.

The celebrated Schelling models show that only weak preferences for people to live amongst “their own sort” can lead over time to almost complete segregation. In the UK the incentives for moving to more affluent areas are strong, and will become stronger as funding for state support declines. Meanwhile changes to housing benefit rates will make it harder for less well-off people to live in those  areas, creating a less mixed society in which social problems are more neatly cordoned off (or more prevalent, depending on where you are sitting).

People with no degree are half as likely to volunteer as graduates[i]. The latter may be better placed, as well as more willing, to embody the Big Society ideals by taking the initiative to analyse and address the problems they see. Yet David Willett’s much-maligned speech on social mobility in higher education [now expunged from online history] credibly identified broad socio-economic trends (the concentration of wealth in housing, rather than pensions; the creation of greater opportunities for affluent women) that have meant increased university places have not increased access for the least well-off. The new “graduate contribution” of up to £9,000 per year may further discourage poorer people from taking up these places, further reducing the kind of cross-pollination between people of diverse backgrounds on which the Big Society depends.

In general, powerful socio-economic forces at micro and macro level may make it less likely that citizens will take on the social problems that the Big Society agenda is designed to address. The value traditionally placed on aspiration and wealth-creation by Conservatives make many of these forces unlikely targets for the Government. Many voluntary organizations have railed against them, highlighting unacceptable social deprivation, and (through fundraising and volunteering) engaging resource-rich people to help tackle it. While state funding for such voluntary activity declines, will the growth of “Big Society thinking” among citizens themselves be an adequate substitute?

Update on 17 May:

Corrected a few typos, ambiguities, and poorly expressed thoughts from the original post.

[i] DCLG Citizenship Survey 2009, quoted in acevo Commission on Big Society report 2011.

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Virgin Trains: pay extra if you work for a charity

Last year Virgin Trains launched a revamped discount scheme for charity staff. At the time, it was clear the scheme would be less flexible and require extra bureaucracy, with the ever-present threat of a “full price fare” if you boarded the wrong train, or failed to carry a “photographic Charity ID” (not sure I’ve ever seen one of those).

“Unlike the previous Charityline scheme, you will need to travel on the specific train service that you book.  If you miss this train then you will have to buy another ticket.  To get the best deal, book early and try to travel off peak.

“Please travel with photographic Charity ID or a completed version of the attached Letter of Authority for checking by VT Train Managers, when using a charity ticket.  Discounted tickets not supported by one or other of these forms of ID will be deemed invalid, and will result in the ticket holder being charged the full walk-up fare for the journey being made.”

The Directory of Social Change noticed at the time that the discount only applies to a limited number of tickets, which quickly sell out, and that the scheme was significantly less generous than its predecessor.

This week I tried for the first time to use the scheme, as two of us are attending a Help the Hospices conference in Manchester. I wasn’t certain that there would be any discounted tickets available, or that the 20% discount would offset the expense of having special “photographic Charity ID” printed up.

Surprisingly enough, applying the charity discount resulted in a fare that was 21% more expensive than the alternative: £144 vs £118.80 for a normal fare. It looks like this charity scheme isn’t worth the time and effort charities – or indeed Virgin – have to put into it.

Update on 4 April 2011: scheme is generally useless

I spoke to Virgin Trains customer services, who explained why this happens. Apparently it is very common. The charity discount mainly applies to a very small number of tickets available 8-12 weeks in advance. These sell out rapidly on peak time trains. After that, people will almost always find it cheaper to buy the “saver half return” – the cheapest  option in my screenshot, than to use the charity discount, which only applies to much more expensive tickets.

Summary: only use the Virgin Trains charity discount if you’re booking tickets at least 8 weeks in advance. Otherwise don’t bother.

Update on 6 April 2011: scheme is significantly worse than useless

We tried to amend one of the bookings via Trainline. Since we have a charity account (even though we didn’t use the charity scheme for the tickets), they were unable to change the ticket. Instead we would have to make further extra phone calls and send the original tickets back in the post to get a refund. This only applies to charity account holders, not to any other business account with Virgin Trains.

Summary: do not join the Virgin Trains charity scheme unless you want higher prices and worse service.


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Big Society Online – thoughts on the future direction of digital fundraising

The Cabinet Office recently asked me for a few thoughts on how technology could be harnessed more effectively to support the “Big Society” objective of increasing charitable giving and volunteering.

The resulting essay was published (alongside several others, and the green paper itself) on the Cabinet Office website. I’ve received some kind comments from those that have found and downloaded it.

For those with limited time, the key trends mentioned are:

1) The convenience and speed of social networks in spreading awareness of a cause and building relationships with potential future donors (usually via current donors)

2) The use of online platforms to reduce dramatically the costs involved in creating volunteering opportunities in certain highly skilled areas, and make “micro-volunteering” possible, and (analogously) to make micro-donations (such as eBay Give at Checkout) financially viable.

3) The future is “restricted”: some donors’ increased demand for control over how their money is spent, and the growing use of online platforms to market and restrict donations in this way (cf Donors Choose), and to facilitate direct contact with beneficiaries.

4) The potential of mobile donations (e.g. using GPS technology to find and support local charities), and the need for a more supportive stance from Apple (see my previous post).

I also suggest ways in which businesses could be encouraged to contribute more to charities via digital platforms, for example by opening up data on charities, providing scalable legal and financial infrastructure for small businesses to enter into partnerships with charities, and creating opportunities for charities to engage with digital developers (cf PayPal’s Charityhack)

Finally, I suggest a way in which Gift Aid could be extended more openly across digital fundraising, through a couple of simple policy changes at HMRC:

“HMRC should explore simple changes of policy that would enable a far wider range of donations to be tax‐effective. The single‐click, impulse donations of the online world are far removed from the form‐filling culture demanded by Gift Aid regulations. Simple innovations such as enabling phone numbers or email addresses to be used as unique identifiers for donors would spectacularly simplify the process of claiming Gift Aid on many digital donations. Allowing charities and companies to offer a “universal” Gift Aid declaration, in which donors could enable Gift Aid to be claimed across all eligible charities, would give the fundraising world the basis for exploring a more efficient and better adopted system.”
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Why Apple is blocking iPhone donations to charity, and why it matters

Why can’t iDonate?

Apple’s policy prohibiting donations within iPhone Apps is now formal, and blockings a powerful new way for donors to engage with charities. As a result, charities are likely to miss out on millions of pounds of income to support their work unless the policy is reversed.

The phenomenal growth of the iPhone and iPad App platforms has excited charities about a new chance to engage with supporters on the move. Almost all iPhone users browse the internet and use Apps on their phones, making it the obvious first point of call for mobile campaigns. From vinspired’s app helping young people find and share volunteering opportunities, through to Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s self check App, Apple’s trusted mobile platform is catching the imagination of communicators across the sector.

Over the past year MissionFish has worked with a range of companies to enable donations from iPhone Apps. The GetGiving App, which would have provided a frictionless and compelling mobile interface for donations to a wide range of charities, was blocked by Apple earlier this year. PayPal’s Mobile App added a Donations function for release in August, which was removed at Apple’s insistence just two months later, after over $10,000 was donated by iPhone users.

Apple took exception to the seamless way in which these Apps enabled donations. Users were able to send a contribution to the charity of their choice from within the App itself via their PayPal accounts, removing the need to send text messages or type cumbersome log-in details into their web browser. Avoiding such “friction” is absolutely fundamental to conversion rates on a mobile platform, yet Apple’s policies rigidly insist on it.

The App Store Review Guidelines simply state that “The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS”. This has left developers in a bind – either produce a donations App with a poor user experience, or give up entirely. The opportunity for charities is either dramatically reduced, or disappears altogether.

In-App purchases for ecommerce have been common on the iPhone for some time, so it’s only charity donations that are discriminated against in this way. At a time when households in the UK are tightening their belts, charities are being placed at a unique disadvantage.

So why is Apple refusing to allow in-App donations to charity?

In the absence of any public explanation from Apple, we can only speculate:

1)      Perhaps Apple is unable or unwilling to separate genuine charities from imposters, and doesn’t want to be directly implicated in processing donations it cannot verify. The SMS or Safari route provides a layer of insulation, in which the user (to an extent) leaves Apple’s controlled environment.

2)      Apple may be unwilling to waive the 30% fee they levy on all in-App transactions, even for charity donations. Making exceptions for one type of transaction could set a precedent they would find it difficult to resist.

3)      Apple has a widely known aversion to corporate philanthropy in general, at least on a public platform. The iPhone policy may be a symptom or side-effect of this more widespread policy.

All three factors may play a part: given the practical difficulties of policing donations, the clash with Apple’s existing business model for Apps, and its aversion to public philanthropy, Apple is reluctant to expend the resources required to solve the issue.

What would change Apple’s mind?

If Apple’s cultural aversion to public philanthropy is behind this decision, their attitude may need to evolve. When you are providing a platform for the interaction of millions of people and organisations, decisions about philanthropy are no longer solely your call. Blocking donations cannot be a private company matter when your operating system has such a dominant position in the world at large.

Apple also needs to know that supporting charities is a priority for their users. Many are leaving comments on a recent Gizmodo article highlighting the problem. Some influential bloggers, such as Beth Kanter, are planning to ditch their iPhones for Android unless the policy changes. Others are signing an online petition asking Steve Jobs to change his mind.

Perhaps Apple needs some practical help. MissionFish has solved the practical issues concerning donations within the eBay marketplace, enabling buyers and sellers to support the charities of their choice through a trusted platform, fully integrated with eBay’s main business model. MissionFish polices the registration of charities in the UK and US, and provides the legal and financial infrastructure to ensure all sides honour their commitments. The programme, eBay for Charity, has helped raise over £20m in the UK, and over $200m worldwide.

In many ways, the PayPal App solved all the problems I’ve mentioned using existing eBay for Charity infrastructure. There was no need for Apple to police charities or manage transactions, as PayPal and MissionFish were doing the work already. If there are other problems, I’m sure we – and other organisations in the space – could help Apple find ways of tackling them.

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CharityHack 2010: a few powerful ideas for transforming online fundraising

MissionFish recently participated once again in PayPal’s CharityHack event, which brought together 100 developers for 24 hours to generate ideas for the future of fundraising. Working through the night in small teams, the participants came up with applications and websites that were impressive, innovative, and amusing in equal measure. Our CTO, Oktay Dogramaci (pictured), was a judge.

Oktay Dogramaci at CharityHack10

Oktay Dogramaci at CharityHack10

The overall winnner, CharityBox, came up with one of the easiest and most powerful affiliate fundraising applications I’ve seen. You’ll probably be aware of the model, in which an intermediary donates a percentage of the commission they receive from retailers. Adoption generally remains limited, because you need to visit their site and click on a special link in return for the microdonation. CharityBox  improves the idea by recasting it as a Google Chrome extension using PayPal split payments and the MissionFish database. You simply set your favourite  charities in the toolbar, and it flashes when you visit a participating retailer. More fun, and less friction, than any other implementation I’ve seen.

Charities sometimes struggle to convert their Facebook friends and Twitter followers into active donors. Part of the explanation lies in the difficulty of getting users to leave the social network in order to initiate a (less interesting, more serious) payment. The mobile winner, Givey, removes this barrier by enabling users to link their activity on social networks to micro-donations using PayPal and MissionFish. Populate your Givey account with PayPal and Gift Aid details, and you can send tax-effective donations via Tweets, Facebook Posts, and SMS.

Another powerful idea came from the CharityShock team. Using an Adruino board and capacitor, they were able to convert online donations into small electric shocks for a team member. The sadism, while enjoyable, isn’t integral to the model – you could instead use the Adruino board to light up a Christmas tree, power a model train, open an amusement park or… anything, really. The implications for public event fundraising are striking.

For further details of the event and its winners, including some videos of the winning presentation, check out John Lunn’s blog on the PayPal Developer Network, and the CharityHack10 site.

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A chugging fiasco?

Last week Stephen Bubb, chief executive of acevo, berated 50 of his members – the bosses of top fundraising charities – for failing to appear on Newsnight. The flagship BBC 2 news programme had criticised the practice of face-to-face fundraising, or “chugging”.

The core of Newsnight’s criticism  was simply that charities paid too much money to the agencies used for such fundraising – often more than £100 per sign-up. Newsnight reported that these fees “effectively wipe out the amount a person gives”, particularly as many donors cancel their direct debit commitments within the first year.

Bubb is right to take sector CEOs to task on the issue. If face-to-face fundraising is defensible in its current form, we should defend it. All the more so when street fundraisers have, through their prevalence in busy urban areas, effectively become the most visible face of many fundraising charities. When the practice is subject to such a high-profile attack, a clear and coherent response should be ready.

My near namesake, Mick Aldridge, who runs the PFRA – the self-regulatory body for street fundraisers, takes the role of a “chuggers’ champion” on these occasions, and works to provide such a response. He robustly dismissed Newsnight’s line as that of an “uninformed outsider”, and later the PFRA said it “expected more from a programme previously held up as a bastion of balance and credibility.” Yet the key umbrella bodies and major charities seem at best reluctant to engage in the debate. Why are others in the sector so slow to support Mick on the issue?

Part of the reason may be recognition that many people have been irritated by the persistence and prevalence of street fundraisers, and sector leaders do not want to associate themselves too closely with those experiences. If true, this is short-sighted: charities are already associated with street fundraising. They clearly make efforts to ensure the quality and integrity of the practice (through the PFRA, for example) and must be prepared to defend it. If in fact chugging needs to adopt a less intrusive style to avoid alienating large swathes of the public, then charity leaders should at least embrace the debate.

A more interesting reason may be that chugging sits squarely between two irreconcilable and widespread beliefs about the sector. On the one hand, charities are endlessly told to become more business-like, judging themselves (and those they pay for services) on results delivered rather than good intentions. Chugging is an excellent example of charities doing just that – paying highly-skilled, specialist agencies in exact proportion to the results they deliver. One can argue over the prices, given high attrition rates, but reasonable competition exists within the sector, and charities generally remain satisfied with the results. A more subtle objection is that payment by results, in this particular case, creates a perverse incentive for insistent behaviour that may not be in the charities’ long-term best interests.

On the other hand, some believe (with Newsnight) that charities must not behave like businesses at all. The programme’s indignation at the “millions” made by fundraising agencies is – as Mick points out – a knee-jerk response unworthy of an analytical programme. A sector of this size clearly pays millions to all sorts of industries that do not exist for the public benefit. Many millions go the way of newspapers and search engines, to utility companies and transport agencies, and to banks and money-changers. Is spending money on fundraising any more outrageous than this?

British fundraisers generate close to £10bn per year in income for good causes. Most people only give money to charity when prompted in some way. The prompting – whether through the media or directly, costs money, and it takes significant spending to generate billions.

I was reminded of a focus group for older people run by nfpSynergy, the sector research consultancy. The subjects railed against supposedly high salaries in charities, since they drove up operating costs and reduced the money “spent on the cause”. Yet they preferred to hear from charities through (colossally expensive) adverts on mainstream TV channels. What’s the difference between this kind of expenditure and the fees to street fundraising agencies?

The only real difference lies in the immediate causal relationship between the donation and the payment to the agency. Psychologically speaking, many donors give through charities, rather than to them. They want to support causes, not organisational infrastructure. Their gifts need to be treated with respect and reverence, and directed carefully towards the beneficiaries most in need.

But the system of payments by results, while immensely “businesslike”, undercuts this principle and risks packaging the donation as a commercial transaction, secured by salespeople on commission. It is very difficult for a donor to separate their donation from the agency’s fees in the way that Mick Aldridge advocates. The close connection makes donors uncomfortable about the practice, and supports the Newsnight narrative that people wouldn’t sign up if aware of the costs.

Parallels exist in the world of online fundraising. Many fundraising websites charge charities through up-front fees and flat-rate subscriptions, while others take money in proportion to the income they generate for the charity. While the latter is arguably more businesslike for the charity, the former has the benefit of leaving the donors’ money “intact”.

Personally, I cannot see that any programme of education will change the public perception that their donations should go to causes, rather than the agencies that enable fundraising. We must nevertheless make donors more aware that fundraising always costs money, and without this expenditure the sector would not be able to deliver the huge public benefit it currently achieves. Otherwise, the future will lie in isolating and disguising the costs of fundraising from the public, which will only generate more work, and indignation, for news journalists.

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Naomi Campbell, dodgy diamonds, and charity governance

So Naomi Campbell handed her dirty diamonds (allegedly a gift from Charles Taylor) to Jeremy Ractliffe, the manager of a children’s charity founded by Nelson Mandela. He declined to pass them on to the charity, as she apparently intended. Instead he kept them, in order “to protect the reputation of the NMCF, Mr. Mandela himself and Naomi Campbell, none of whom were benefiting in any way” (Reuters).

Several UK charities have faced similar – if less high profile – issues in relation to accepting donations from controversial people and organisations. See, for example, the “profoundly uncomfortable” issue of accepting funds raised by the BNP (Third Sector).

So are charities obliged to reject controversial donations? Not necessarily. Those ultimately responsible for the charity, its trustees, have an obligation to act in the best interests of the charity, and this will typically involve raising as much money as possible to deliver its objectives.

There may be times when trustees should, nevertheless, reject a donation. As the Charity Commission for England and Wales puts it:

“There may be occasions where it would be in the interests of the charity to decline a gift. If a donor, for example, were to insist that the charity adopt a particular policy or allow the donor to have a say in selecting beneficiaries, the trustees would have to consider very carefully whether it would be in the interests of the charity to accept the donation.”  (CC20)

In the same paper, the Commission warns charities against unwitting involvement in money laundering or other criminal activity. However, it has rather little to say about accepting donations from disreputable sources, such as funds that may ultimately be the proceeds of crime.

So it would be up to the charity to decide whether the benefits of accepting donations from undesirable sources outweigh the reputational damage that might result from them. It will typically be a difficult decision, as the charity will have to weigh the pressing interests of its beneficiaries against intangibles such as its own good name. For this reason, such decisions are often taken to the highest level – the trustee board.

In this particular case, it might be hard to see how a children’s charity could possibly accept donations linked to war crimes in Sierra Leone. Had the trustees been asked to consider accepting the diamonds, they no doubt would have decided instead to hand them immediately to the authorities. Unlike the manager, acting in a personal capacity, they would not have been able to give much consideration to the reputation of other individuals concerned.


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Big Society: the not-very-big briefing

What’s the “Big Society” supposed to be?

The Prime Minister’s vision for the UK is characterised by “Big Society” rather than big government.  He wants to see private individuals and voluntary groups exercise more control over their lives and the environment, particularly at local level, rather than looking to the state for solutions.

What does that mean?

Big Society policies and initiatives tend to reflect the following principles:

1)    Decentralisation: the redistribution of power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities.

2)    Transparency and accountability into public spending, with a greater role for the public in making and scrutinising public spending decisions,

3)    Participation: Greater public engagement in volunteering and charitable giving, and a drive to simplify the operating environment for third sector organisations.

4)    Public services: Private and voluntary organisations playing a greater role in public service delivery, though more and better commissioning.

Anything more concrete?

A number of initiatives and policy changes have already been announced as part of Big Society plans.


  • Ring fencing of government grants to local Government will be phased out by October 2010.
  • Directly elected Mayors in the largest 12 cities in England.

Transparency and accountability:

  • A new ‘right to data’ to enable the public to request government-held datasets.
  • Publication of all external spending over £500 by local authorities.


  • A Communities First Fund to help the third sector work with new community groups.
  • A National Citizen Service to encourage more young people to volunteer.
  • A Big Society Bank, funded by dormant bank accounts, to invest in the third sector.
  • In four “vanguard” areas, Liverpool, Eden Valley, Windsor and Maidenhead and Sutton, the government will provide a community organiser and civil servants to support and foster community initiatives.
  • A pledge in the Budget to simplify the Gift Aid system.

Public services:

  • A Localism Bill will give local communities the right to bid to take over state run services.
  • A single “Work Programme” will consolidate existing welfare-to-work services under a single commissioning programme.
  • Health commissioning will be localised through oversight by GP cooperatives.

Who’s in charge of all this?

The Government has established a Big Society ministerial group with Francis Maude MP and Eric Pickles MP as co-Chairs, including representatives from every department. The Office for Civil Society (formerly the Office for the Third Sector) will lead on programmes that involve the third sector.

The key personnel within Government focused on Big Society work are:

Cabinet Office:

  • Francis Maude MP
  • Oliver Letwin MP
  • Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society

Department for Communities

  • Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State
  • Greg Clark MP, Decentralisation Minister

Other advisors and influencers:

  • Nicholas Boles MP, former director of Policy Exchange
  • Lord (Nat) Wei, founder of Teach First
  • Phillipa Stroud (DWP), former director of the Centre for Social Justice

Meanwhile, the Government has invited parliament to create a Select Committee for Civil Society this autumn, and a Big Society Network has been set up by Martyn Rose and Paul Twivy.

What are the risks?

Many experienced leaders and commentators in (and around) the third sector remain unconvinced that the Big Society agenda is meaningful enough to make a difference, given the massive cuts in public spending, and the shortage of information about how Big Society will work in practice.

“The mantra of ‘doing more with less’ will be carved on the doorway of more and more voluntary groups. In these circumstances it is increasingly important that we hear more about the big society from the government than pious rhetoric and the gnomic utterances of Lord Wei.” Stephen Cook, Editor Third Sector

In particular, sector leaders are concerned that the contraction in public spending (including a 25% reduction in spending by most government departments) will effectively wipe out the small grants and public service contracts on which many third sector organisations have depended for income. Meanwhile, donations are also falling, and the VAT increase next year will cost the sector an extra £150m per year.

“Small scale community activity is fundamentally important to civil society. It depends on small grants, and if these are wiped out this will remove the very support structures that community groups depend on and undermine the big society,” Sir Stuart Etherington, CEO, NCVO,

“The credibility of the Big Society is significantly undermined by the impact of economic policy on charities and voluntary groups, as announcements of cuts to funding emerge on an almost daily basis.” Toby Blume, CEO, UrbanForum

The Big Society philosophy includes an assumption that local commissioners will be likely to become “smart and strategic” as they seek to find more efficient ways of delivering local services, and that this will lead them to develop relationships with citizens, charities and social enterprises who are able to provide ideas and input. No doubt the best will try, but others are likely to retrench and cost-cut, awarding any remaining contracts to the cheapest bidder as a matter of necessity. There will be little spare time or resource to invest in developing the capacity of local organisations and people to take over services.

As Nick Hurd recognises, “There is clearly a significant risk to the Big Society agenda,” and will be telling other ministers to “think about the impact on the local and voluntary sector” and “make sure the state minimises the damage.” In this context, the third sector will be looking to cut costs and limit fallout, rather than recognising any great opportunity for expansion.

Given the Government’s public commitment to decentralisation of power, many Big Society initiatives involve highly centralised commissioning. For instance, the Government intends to establish a National Citizen Service, rather than simply supporting the best existing volunteering organisations to work with young people. David Cameron has also announced that future income from the Futurebuilders Fund, which was independently managed and invested in service-providing organisations, will be rerouted to train a “Neighbourhood army” of 5,000 full-time, professional community organisers.

“Listen to the sector, Government, and you may get it right. Pursue your own schemes and you may not. You may have thought up these great ideas while in opposition but you are now in Government. You need to test them against the knowledge and wisdom of our great sector. And you need to ensure effective funding.” Stephen Bubb, CEO, acevo and Chair, Social Investment Business

The Big Society meets with a sceptical response from groups to the right of centre, who regard it as a risky dalliance with left-wing principles and activities. In March, the TaxPayers’ Alliance warned of the Conservatives’ plans to “flood local politics with thousands of taxpayer funded radical activists”. Some Conservative voices are also sceptical about the value of third sector projects, which encompass “politically correct training to council staff, public arts projects for which there is little demand or – worst of all – lobbying and campaigning at taxpayers’ expense.”

The Government will no doubt face pressure from the right to abandon the Big Society project as an unaffordable vanity. Those on the front line, however, will argue that robust initiatives to support local communities will be essential as public expenditure dramatically falls.

For more information:

Cabinet Office Paper: Building the Big Society

NCVO’s Big Society Hub

Insight PA’s Big Society Briefing

David Cameron’s Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, November 2009

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Burdens on the Big Society

If  Big Society initiatives are to stand a chance of succeeding against a backdrop of massive cuts in public spending, it needs to be as easy as possible for people to start new charities and voluntary groups.

We are committed to bringing a clear vision to the sector that will mean charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations are easier to run and not overwhelmed by interference and bureaucracy.”

Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, 18 May 2010

Someone should have told HMRC, which has just  introduced a new set of regulations for people running charities. Every time you appoint a new trustee (director) to a charity board, you already need to notify the Charity Commission and Companies House through separate processes. At least these processes are familiar and online.

But now HMRC also wants to be notified of every new trustee appointment, and anyone else responsible for running the charity, so it can check that they are “fit and proper persons”, through a paper form. So charities will need to fill out a third form for a third regulator with each new appointment.

The new rules will mean millions of extra working hours spent form-filling for HMRC rather than delivering public benefit. This is exactly the kind of unnecessary bureaucracy that the “Big Society” agenda should be weeding out.

If HMRC has concerns that any given charity is being used for tax fraud, it should share intelligence with the Charity Commission (or other regulators) to investigate. If HMRC’s concerns are well-founded, the charity will be misapplying its assets, and the Commission can step in. If not, no action need be taken, and no forms need be filled.

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