Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Charity Dilema

Recently I have been having a problem with charity. Not in the way you way think. Sure the “chuggers” who stop you every five metres in the street are annoying and nobody really likes somebody knocking on their door during teatime.  But that’s not my complaint.

My issue comes from the fact that we need to rely on charities so much at all: that there really is a desperate need for charities to raise more money because they need to spend that money and help people. Whether they are small local charities providing overnight shelter for rough sleepers or medical research charities investigating a disease, that’s what they are for: helping people. An enormous amount of scientific breakthrough comes from charities and that knowledge goes toward being able to adequately help, treat and care for people with illnesses as diverse as heart disease to rare cancers to narcolepsy. It’s important and valuable work.

Recently I have noticed that charities are in need of more and are having to appeal more often, especially when it comes to frontline services such as housing or mental health support. Charities are desperate for the funding to be able to continue providing services which are being stretched to the limit. Of course those who can donate are. The generosity of people in doing what they can to help others has been phenomenal. It is clear to most of us that things are pretty rubbish in this country for a lot of people right now, and we need to help in any way we can.

What is upsetting me though is that this altruism and giving nature is, I believe, what the Tory government is counting on. Back in 2010 it became a cornerstone of Cameron lead Conservative politics as he pushed for “Big Society”. In part this was associated with things like the push for changing the way schools are run and the opening of more Academies which were privately funded. In practice though the concept of Big Society means that is falls on the general population to look after each other. On the face of it that doesn’t sound like a terrible thing. After all we would all like to think that we are caring individuals that will help each other out when we are can. There are a couple of problems though.

We aren’t just talking about a few small acts of kindness here and there. Big Society is less about lending your mate a fiver when they are short at the end of the month and is more about creating the infrastructure to support social needs from housing to education to health care. These are big demands that can never be taken on by individuals but that need vast amounts of cooperation, skills and organisation.

The second issue is that it leaves it up to the individual as to how and whom they will help. And why is that an issue? Because some people just aren’t as caring as others. Additionally some aren’t as generous as others while of course some simply don’t have as much to give. It has been shown in a number of studies that while people on a large income may make larger individual donations, it is low income people who are more likely to give regularly and to give a larger percentage of their income to charities. Even without the economic split it’s clear that there are some people who are always going to be more inclined toward giving than others. This means that when charities are being relied upon to fill the gaps in social care and infrastructure, the money to make this possible is only coming from a small percentage of the population, while the services, care and resources available are available to all. It becomes a great source of inequity and some may say adds insult to the injury that sees lower income people proportionally taxed higher than high earners already.

While the emphasis currently is on frontline services or services for at risk groups – homeless charities, refugee support, foodbanks and so on – there are those who may think that they are never going to be in need of those resources. But as many of us know nothing in life is certain and unexpected expenses, sudden ill health or injury, loss of a job and many other personal catastrophes can leave you in a position of needing that help. The help and support of charities really is for everybody.

But it’s not just those front line charities which need our financial support. Charities which carry out research into everything from understanding and treating cancers to climate change are struggling. In recent years the government funding for scientific research as well as a number of other policies have meant that research groups have been struggling to continue with studies and projects. It’s easy to feel cut off from this science unless you take a particular interest or are in a STEM industry yourself but in truth we often benefit in ways we don’t realise. Everything from novel materials that can be used in manufacturing, climate studies that help us predict how we can keep ourselves and the planet healthy in future years and of course biomedical research that can literally save lives (or just vastly improve them). All of this requires money. If it’s not coming from the government it has to come from private investment (which can only go so far and may impose bias), or charitable funds and foundations. It’s a limited pot of money and already difficult for research teams to make successful grant applications but it’s often the only real source of funding for many researchers. Of course when financing is limited it is not unexpected that the grants will go to those seen as most in need. That goes for both those awarding the grants and those donating to charities and foundations. The problem is that it’s very difficult to decide what has most worth, what is most in need and what is a good “investment” of our donation. A cure for a rare cancer that could save thousands of lives or better understanding of a non-fatal but life-limiting chronic illness that could help even more. In reality both are valuable. Just as the research into electronics, robotics, energy, agriculture, psychology and many more areas are valuable in different ways.

When the funding isn’t coming from the government and is instead coming from the public we are left with very difficult decisions to make and ultimately some area will suffer potentially leaving a legacy for generations to come. It is beyond doubt that finding a new treatment that helps save lives is important and needs to be done but we have to acknowledge that that may come at the cost of staying competitive in manufacture, engineering computing and emerging economies.

There are some big implications here. It means that the responsibility for looking after people, our health, the general infrastructure and the future economy is being pushed onto the shoulders of charities. This in turn means that the ultimate fate of this myriad of issues is down to us, those who donate. We are left with no option. We have to donate because if we don’t people will suffer. There is clear evidence of this in the newspapers, in fact on our streets, every day. We have to donate because we want to see a future where things get better. We know every time we a few pounds here, the last of our coppers there, that there is a desperation in our country and it is down to a minority with both a social conscience and the means to do so to try and make things work. It’s clear that those at the top, those who are supposed to legally have a responsibility as well as those who could afford to do more, are letting us get on with it. They are taking advantage of our generosity, our desire to help good causes and people in need, our tendency to give back to those who have helped already to say “Thank you.” for efforts done and to pass it on to future people in need.

I will be giving to charity this Christmas, both national organisations and on a more local level, but it upsets me both that the need for this generosity for is increasing and that with every donation we are “proving” that the Tory experiment of Big Society works. Not works in a meaningful manner in that all sectors of society take care of each other equally, everything is adequately funded and infrastructure, investment and core social care is managed by the Government, but works in a sense that people will do their best to fill in the gaps where they can and that the impression of caring and generosity will make up for any lack in real provision.

Do give to charity, please don’t stop. But equally do contact your MPs and ask about where funding is going. Do ask about fairer taxation and query why so much time and money is wasted on raking back pennies from social care while large corporations avoid tax by the billions. It’s just another way of showing people you care and of making a difference. We need charities, but we need a government that actually works for us far, far more. 


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