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Exploring the world of Charities - how they both inspire and enrage

The implications for Cass Business School of slow legal drafting of Sir John Cass' will upgrade, in 1718

Although my background lies in the private sector, a dozen years ago I quit to follow my heart into in the non profit world . As well it being my day job I’ve become wholly fascinated with the sector itself – it’s composition, its history and its political interactions.

It’s a sector that alternatively inspires and enrages. As an outsider I found the culture and underlying assumptions fascinating, partly because of the differences from the highly charged atmosphere of the City financial sector. Through consultancy and afterwards through a social enterprise I explored this world, and strove to make it more fit for purpose, occasionally with some success.  I am still amazed at the commitment, drive and creativity I find.

But this often seems accompanied by a semi permanent state of angst. The Guardian has recently published an article: “Is the Voluntary Sector in crisis?” citing major losses in income at a time when organisations are being subjected to greatly increased demands from beneficiaries. And the sector’s prominente seem to be up in arms at criticisms by some politicians and sections of the media – whether the high salaries received by a tiny number of charity CEOs, the role of the RSPCA in initiating prosecutions against foxhunters, or the proper limits to be applied to campaigning activities.

Let us set all this in context. Yes, some charities are under financial pressure and some are being pushed to collaborate or merge – but this is an age of austerity across all economic sectors and households and we are not seeing wholesale collapse. Overall, the role of the sector receives strong political support: as one respected academic puts it “By 2010, as in no previous general election, the third sector was in the position of being assumed to have earned its right to automatic consideration in the political parties agendas.”

More important, in a society where public regard for institutions is diminishing, charities stand out, with only police and doctors being more trusted. The sector’s regulator, The Charity Commission regularly commissions polling to understand public perceptions of charities these consistently reveal a steady public belief that charities have an important role to play in society, that their motivations are sound and that they make a positive difference to the cause they work for.

Uniquely, charities offer the funnel whereby public altruism, whether through cash or other donations, time spent volunteering, or membership is channelled to uncover new areas of need and mitigate some of society’s seemingly intractable challenges; whether the care needs of an increasingly elderly society, opportunities for children and young people to develop their sporting prowess, or the cycle of persistent reoffending.

There are so many extraordinary examples of the ways that charities have changed society. One exemplar is the modern hospice movement. Realising the inadequacies of medical practice in respect of the dying, Dame Cicely Saunders founded St Christopher’s Hospice in 1967 which quickly became a source of inspiration for others until today it is estimated that one in three people have been touched by hospice care. Yet only about one third of the funding comes from Government with the majority deriving from local fundraising. And over 100,000 volunteers are involved providing care valued at over £112 million a year.

Or let us consider the long established Sir John Cass Foundation. Sir John Cass, a childless man, died in 1718 and left his fortune to support a school, the Sir John Cass Primary School, which still exists in the City of London, together with a range of other educational causes. Sir John died in 1718. He had previously made a will in 1709, but decided to make a new one in view of his fast deteriorating health. He died while completing the latter will, having revoked the first but only having signed two out of the six pages of the latter, with blame being assigned to the drafter for being slow in writing out Sir John’s expressed intentions. It took thirty years for the inevitable ensuing litigation to be settled.

Sir John was a wealthy City merchant, active politician, and, most importantly lived in the then rural Hackney, acquiring land there and in other parts of East London and Essex. The basis of this bequest still enables the Sir John Cass Foundation to support individuals, schools and organisations, together with several institutions bearing the name of Sir John Cass. One example, for which my colleagues and I are grateful is their decision to give a grant of £5 million in 2003 to the City University to relaunch and rename its business school as “Cass Business School” .(I am a Principal Consultant in the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass).

The coat of arms contains red feathers. This is said to derive from the blood from a lung haemhorrage that stained his quill pen as, in his dying moments, he strove to finish signing his will.

My third and final example is a charity where I’m personally involved as a patient of the brilliant University College Hospital. ‘Breathing Matters’ was set up to raise awareness of and help find a cure for a range of interstitial lung diseases and other respiratory infections. Some are comparatively unknown, have no cure, yet are under-funded in research terms. For example, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis leads to around 5,000 deaths annually, more than leukaemia or ovarian cancer, with over half of those who develop it dying within three years of their diagnosis. Yet its causes are still little known, and apart from a lung transplant, there is no real cure.

In its first three years Breathing Matters has raised £150,000, from: events such as cycle rides or tractor races; donations; Christmas cards, and sponsorship to fund research.  Breathing Matters exemplifies the charity sector operating at its best. It identifies and channels a genuine unmet need with the goodwill of volunteers – fundraising often by sufferers themselves, their families and friends. This has enabled early stage research that has already leveraged £1.3 million in further institutional funding.

The real values of the sector remain despite the top level noise and flummery. It is far more distinctive and resilient than some of the doom mongers accept and will continue to address real need whatever the economic and political climate. As for me, I’ll continue to read and research the sector, exploring and blogging about its many curious nooks and crannies.

Mary Chadwick

January 2014