Skip the primary navigation if you do not want to read it as the next section.
Skip the main content if you do not want to read it as the next section.
By Jay Kennedy, Head of Policy, Directory of Social Change
The Westminster bubble and the churning conversations of the ‘chattering classes’ can seem a universe away from the day-to-day reality of most charities – where managing services for beneficiaries and just generally trying to stay afloat are often the main concern. I think of this as the ‘policy gap’. Below I outline three important issues which are out there swimming in the ether and ask some further questions.
Social investment – What on earth is it? What will it become? What should it become?
Social investment is the flavour of the month in government and think-tanky policy circles right now, but what is it exactly? And moreover, is it going to mean anything to most charities? The idea is constantly evolving and fraught with jargon borrowed from investment banking, which makes it difficult to penetrate for normal people, myself included. In a nutshell social investment is any form of finance that seeks to obtain a social as well as a financial ‘return’.
I think we are approaching a sort of fork in the road about what social investment will mean in practice. On one path, social investment becomes crystallised within the gravity of state priorities, in the context of spending cuts, and is oriented mostly towards public service delivery – hence the current obsession with devices like Social Impact Bonds, which are unlikely to be relevant to the vast majority of organisations but which sound great to cash-strapped Ministers.
The other path is less clearly outlined. For me it involves finding financial tools which will benefit a wide range of organisations, whilst coexisting with (rather than replacing) a charitable ethos that continues to value giving. Is this possible? Who will drive policy development in that direction? So far, the narrative around the Government’s Big Society Capital project doesn’t give me much reassurance that we’re heading on the right road.
How do charities cope with rapid technological change and the demands of greater transparency? For that matter, how does government?
I’m a bit of a reluctant convert to social media – but increasingly I have to admit I think we are experiencing a revolution. The scale and pace of change, the potential, and the risks are real. Ordinary old websites are already looking obsolete. People who are ten or even five years younger than I am are digital natives, and have different ideas about how to access information and how organisations should provide it. And the people who are younger than that have grown up with Facebook, Twitter, texting, and mobile communications as the norm. Lots of younger people view their smartphone as more important than a clunky old desktop PC, even for work!
These trends pose big questions and challenges about how charities provide information about themselves, how they interact with donors, funders, supporters and beneficiaries. Technology will likely increase demand for more information and greater transparency. How do charities keep up – and how do they provide meaningful information to the public in the digital age? Where are the resources to help them do it? How does regulation by the state – for example by the Charity Commission – fit in?
How do we inspire and develop the next generation of givers and philanthropists?
Donations from individuals remain a crucial source of income for the sector; their value often boosted by virtue of being unrestricted income. Although giving levels overall have remained remarkably stable over time, we have seen significant decline during the recent recession. Charities are also are increasingly reliant on a decreasing pool of older givers. How do we educate and motivate the next generation? Surely technological innovation will be part of the answer, even if it is only to maintain giving at historical levels. But we can’t overlook the tried and tested – like kids learning about giving as part of their education and by example from their parents.
In part this question may also involve the organisational vehicles we use to achieve social change in the future. The charity model has proved remarkably robust and is deeply rooted in British culture and society.
People know what a charity is, even if they don’t have a completely accurate picture of what charities do in the modern age. They mostly don’t know what a CIO, a CIC or even a social enterprise is. Is that set to change? Will younger generations adapt and refresh the charity model for new purposes, or will they look to build new vehicles? Will government drive change forward, get in the way, or just be bypassed completely?
I’ve probably raised more questions than answers here, and these are just some of the ‘policy gap’ issues on my mind at the moment. I could go on - the continuing omnishambles of public services contracting, the future of charity law and regulation, ‘what next’ for volunteering. Perhaps topics for another day!