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Charities are too ‘respectable’ to win change. I learnt the hard way

OPINION: Too fixated on doing ‘good’ and being polite, charities have stopped fighting for social justice

Janey Starling
20 September 2022, 11.56am
A woman scans missing person notices after the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in 2017
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Credit: Bettina Strenske/Alamy Live News

The runaway cost of living in the UK is terrifying. Parents are going days without food in order to feed their children, elderly people are unable to heat their homes and winter isn’t even here yet. The government has largely turned its back while people plummet into poverty and, as usual, charities are expected to pick up the pieces.

Charities help the growing number of people who have been discarded by the business market and neglected by the shrinking state. Yet, as the Tory policy machine creeps further into authoritarianism and one in six working households face poverty, charities have become more than a safety net. They are a permanent feature of the government’s refusal to meet people’s basic needs.

On the surface, this work is honourable. But beneath lies a more insidious manoeuvring of power, and I don’t think it’s good.

The day my fading faith in charities finally evaporated was 16 June 2017.

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I was working in the campaigns team at one of the UK’s biggest housing charities when the Grenfell Tower fire happened. A BBC TV live stream showed thick smoke billowing from the charred tower block. The grief and shock inside the office was palpable.

It had been two days since the news broke and, despite having a full-time press team, the organisation had not made any public statement. The silence was enraging. I remember walking over to the policy team to ask why, and a flustered policy officer barked at me: “Because this isn’t a housing issue, it’s a fire safety issue.”

Grenfell was a Rorschach test for class-consciousness. Looking at the burning tower block, did you see a tragic accident? Or the outcome of long-term state neglect for people living in desperate housing need? Housing is, after all, a sanitised way to talk about poverty. And poverty is political. A housing charity’s failure to speak truth to power in what should have been a watershed moment for race and class in the UK was bleak.

But this was unsurprising given the context of charities in the UK.

Charity services have become increasingly necessary due to austerity and now the cost of living. But, cowed by funders, co-opted by the Conservative government and edging further into commercialisation, their campaigning voice has been gagged.

This state of affairs is not new – the concept of charity itself originates in religion, philanthropy and capitalist inequality – but recent reforms have made things worse.

Publicly criticising charity is an uncomfortable thing to do. As with the NHS, the fear of playing into the hands of a right-wing lobby seeking to crush the sector can prevent us from identifying its flaws and the harm caused to both staff and people using charity services.

But dysfunction is not a licence to destroy – it is a signal that urgent change is needed. And in our current political environment, unquestioning deference to the concept of charity is unhelpful. Assumed to be a ‘good thing’, staffed by ‘good people’, I believe it’s the unquestioned ‘goodness’ of charities that is actively obstructing the broader pursuit of social justice in the UK.

‘A moral safety valve’

It seems monstrous to suggest that supporting people who are struggling could be anything other than good. But penetrating this notion of goodness is crucial if we are to recognise that charities are increasingly complicit in upholding inequality.

As writer and activist Arundhati Roy said in her essay ‘The NGO-ization of Resistance’: “NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state… their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right.”

Food banks are one example. A photo of former prime minister David Cameron volunteering at a food bank circulated earlier this year. Given that food bank use increased by 2,612% while he was prime minister, the hypocrisy was staggering – but not to him. In his view, the responsibility to make sure everyone can eat should fall to Cameron the citizen rather than Cameron the government minister.

This exemplifies what Janet Poppendieck, author of the book ‘Sweet Charity?’, has identified: that charity acts as a “moral safety valve” that “normalises destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to major social and economic dislocation”.

Cameron, the architect of austerity, fantasised about a “big society” where charity would replace state services and liveable wages, and middle-class do-gooders could offset their guilt through goodwill. The structures that determine who volunteers at and who uses food banks remain in place – but people benefiting from class inequality don’t need to feel bad about it.

Threats, restrictions and ‘respectability politics’

The government loves this Victorian vision of charity; not so much charities’ work campaigning for systemic overhaul. Many charities in the UK combine both roles, with the service provider role granting the organisation legitimacy to campaign in the interests of their supposed beneficiaries – a dual-operating model described as “services for the poor and advocacy with the rich”.

However, these dual-model charities have been defanged by growing restrictions on what campaigning activities they can undertake. The 2014 Lobbying Act, which introduced bureaucratic and financial threats to restrict any charity activity that could – vaguely – “be seen as seeking to influence election outcomes”, has created a culture of risk-aversion through the need to be ‘impartial’. The 2017 Tampon Tax Fund made cash available to underfunded women’s charities – on the strict condition they didn’t use it to campaign.

Legislation and funding restrictions, on top of Charity Commission (the regulatory body for charities in England and Wales) red tape, make it difficult for any organisation to point at the government and state the obvious: you are killing people.

Last year, the Runnymede Trust issued an online statement criticising the UK government over its race report, which had concluded that systemic racism did not exist in Britain. In response, MPs reported the race equality think tank to the Charity Commission for stepping out of line. Runnymede was investigated for six months, at risk of losing its charity status. Although it was cleared, the case served as a warning to others.

These dynamics of control and dependency between the state and the web of services and charities that rely on state funding and/or recognition to perform their work – who ultimately become dependent on the state rather than able to challenge it – are known as the “non-profit industrial complex” (NPIC).

California-based academic Dylan Rodríguez, who coined the term, has critiqued the mechanisms of control charities face in this system: “As organisations linked to the NPIC assert their relative autonomy from, and independence of, state influence, they remain fundamentally tethered to the state through extended structures of financial and political accountability.”

In the UK, this financial tethering is easy to identify and ugly to acknowledge. The Home Office made millions available to charities through Prevent, its Islamophobic surveillance programme, on the condition that communities in receipt of much-needed funding would, in return, give data on Muslims to the government.

But it isn’t just the threat of financial ruin or administrative entrapment that has tamed charities. There is something more insidious at play: respectability politics.

Committees not campaigns

Charities in the UK are increasingly impotent to criticise the state. Afraid to upset funding commissioners, and snuggling up to government in their consultative role, charities cling on to their service contracts and sit politely on committees, offering tepid policy briefs, while the government does whatever it wants. This dynamic is reinforced by the revolving door between the civil service and NGOs.

Endlessly churning out responses to white papers and consultations in order to make the most of supposed opportunities for change, policy teams are perpetually on the back foot. This leaves little capacity for creative thinking, or for ambitious or collaborative campaigning work.

Charities cling on to their service contracts, offering tepid policy briefs, while the government does whatever it wants

Rather than proactively envisioning or creating opportunities – as direct action does – charities wait their turn to be called to consultations, round-tables or other paper-shuffling ‘opportunities’ where their ‘expert’ voices and ‘recommendations’ may be referenced in a new policy framework (which is then ignored).

Austerity has wrecked solidarity by pitting charities against one another for money; and if being truthful is troublesome and could cost you funding or status, it’s better to aim for what’s ‘realistic’ and distance yourself from anyone who could jeopardise that. In other words, keep your head down and stick to the status quo. Civility keeps charities submissive.

This is the environment that sees charities scrabbling on a hamster wheel of parliamentary bills, competing with one another to amend them. This is the environment that sees women’s charities lobbying for pitiful modifications to draconian legislation, considering it a ‘win’. This is the environment that stopped the UK’s biggest housing charity from saying that Grenfell was an act of class war.

The desire to ‘do good’

Charity authority is upheld by emotional scaffolding, primarily feelings of guilt, goodwill and goodness.

That extends beyond donors and volunteers. Many charity staff are pulled into the work by a desire to ‘do good’ (I was one of them) in an unfair society.

But the ‘nice’, ‘polite’ culture that is typical of charity campaigning is both a cause and consequence of what are often exploitative working conditions within the sector. The ingrained notion that charities are there to ‘do good’ at all costs, often without valuing people’s labour by paying them proper wages, makes martyrs of staff and maintains the exclusion of anyone who can’t afford to build a CV from unpaid volunteering.

The resulting impact on an organisation’s critical analysis shows. In a sector where there are more middle-class white women named Lucy than people of colour, there is poor staff unionisation and power-building internally. This translates into a total neglect of power-building and solidarity as a route to change externally.

At the housing charity I worked for, the management’s attempts to cut pay and pensions were accompanied by manipulative urges for staff to accept worse working conditions in order to ensure they “could provide services for the most vulnerable”. This ignored the reality that some of the lowest-paid staff in those services were on housing benefit themselves, because their wages were not enough to cover their own housing costs.

Women’s charities: infrastructure over ideals

This assumed distinction between the “professional” and the “service user” is most apparent in charities supporting women fleeing abuse, which operate as though workers are not also survivors, expecting us to stay emotionally disengaged from traumatising work. Within dual-model women’s charities, the situation is further complicated by a separation (and often class difference) between people working in frontline services, delivering emotionally exhausting and often high-risk casework, and those in head office, doing the bigger-picture campaigning and policy work.

This stratified way of operating dampens the incendiary solidarity that kickstarted the anti-violence movement and its first refuges.

The urge to professionalise is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having paid staff ensures resources are allocated to build the infrastructure that helps women escape abuse, and organisations can advocate at a national level. But prioritising the maintenance of that infrastructure can overshadow a charity’s values, with organisations applying for fixed-term project funding that is more aligned to funder ideals and so-called ‘innovation’ than what women, and workers, actually need.

The positioning of women’s charities as polite, submissive and ‘reasonable’ is a betrayal of the broader feminist movement

Last year, workers from UK domestic abuse charity Solace Women’s Aid publicly called out “a wider turn from a grassroots feminist organisation, to a corporate entity, of corporate sector values with charity sector salaries.” (Solace Women’s Aid also responded publicly.) It is the quest for respectability that establishes a grim power dynamic between career CEOs vying to be head girls for the civil service, and the workers and women they represent.

The positioning of women’s charities as polite, submissive and ‘reasonable’ is a dark betrayal of the broader feminist movement. Afraid to bite the hand that feeds them lest they lose their service contracts, they are rewarded for their complicity in keeping things as they are – not confrontational, but ready to concede.

Feminist academic Alison Phipps brands this self-interested strain of feminism as “political whiteness”, which seeks to gain power in the short term within the existing system, “rather than overthrow the system itself”.

This fixation on legitimacy throws marginalised women – especially trans, disabled and migrant women – under the bus. It dismisses grassroots groups as unreasonable and unrealistic because they, unhindered by restrictions affecting ‘legitimate’ organisations, are willing to be outspoken.

Yet the unreasonable and unrealistic are the fertile ground of liberation movements. In her essay ‘We were never meant to survive’, Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo prompts feminist anti-violence organisations to reflect on whether they are working from a place of integrity, asking: “Is the way we work, the way we prioritise and engage in social change, reflective of the change we’re seeking?”

I don’t think many charities in the UK could answer ‘yes’ – poor working conditions make their ‘good’ work redundant. Boxing ourselves into respectability, and submission to state control, won’t make a dent in social inequality.

I don’t blame the charities

Despite my disillusionment, I don’t lay the blame with charities or their well-intentioned workers. This takes the heat off the state and the philanthropic foundations that invest significant wealth in charities in pursuit of their own social agendas, escaping critique by dressing it up as altruism.

Many charities provide vital services and transform the lives of individuals they help. But they are workplaces where kind people become co-opted into a culture of crushing mediocrity, false urgency, poor management and a dearth of imagination.

Throughout history, our liberation has been won through confrontation, not negotiation. Often, it has been won through political strategies designed and led by the people who are most oppressed; who refuse to let the parameters of freedom be defined by those who produce their suffering. Limiting our goals to what is ‘realistic’ often means accepting defeat before we’ve even tried to fight.

Thankfully, there are people moving against the grain, through unions and collectives like Charity So White, to bring organisations into alignment with their values.

This often means being ready to build solidarity and turn down money. Through the Together Against Prevent coalition, for instance, over 50 organisations have pledged not to accept Prevent funding.

Ultimately, though, the best resistance to respectability politics may involve shunning the charity structure, with its regulatory restrictions and single-issue ‘sectors’, in its entirety.

If goodness equates to being toothless, it’s time charities stopped ‘doing good’ and started doing what’s right. The stakes are now too high not to.

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