Are ‘arbitrary’ cuts charities’ fault?

I appeared on breakfast tv over the weekend, alongside Karl Wilding, Head of Research at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (the membership body for charities in England).

Karl is an asset to the sector and I respect and value his work. He was appearing because the NCVO is warning that many charities face cuts in funding from government. According to a BBC report, some cuts are ‘arbitrary’. The BBC quoted Karl as saying “All that we ask is that government cut with care, they cut with the knowledge of the impact of those cuts are going to be.”

That is commendable, and also recognises that cuts are inevitable. My concern is that this ignores the responsibility on the part of charities to provide the evidence and information which make sensible and sensitive cuts easier to achieve, and arbitrary cuts less likely.

As the NCVO would (I hope and believe) recognise, evidence of impact is crucial to this. Without evidence of what charities achieve with their funding, it is harder to know where to wield the axe and what to spare.

Charities pay lip service to this but collectively still do not commit the resources needed to measure, demonstrate and communicate their results. Without this how can public sector bodies cut sensitively and smartly?

It is certainly the case that public sector funders are part of the problem here, providing far too limited resources for evaluations of projects. But charities themselves need to recognise the importance of this and see that it will be a long and sometimes hard slog to get to a better place where they have good evidence of impact and the confidence to communicate this clearly. Until that happens, cuts that are to some extent ‘arbitrary’ are inevitable and charities must blame themselves in part.

That sounds harsh, and it could have adverse implications for services. But there was a clear warning that public spending cuts were in the offing—many people have been saying for some time that the recession was less important for charities than the likelihood of future public spending cuts. Additionally, there was a clear warning about the lack of evidence of charities’ distinct value in a report from the influential parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee two years ago. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the various leadership bodies in the sector took this seriously and set to work to address the gap.

Of course, there are many charities that, individually, can demonstrate their work and deserve exemption from spending cuts. These are among the favourite charities of NPC’s analysts. We highlighted three such organisations in a recent publication, Scaling up for the Big Society. As we noted in that report, such organisations should not just be spared the axe but should be grown to tackle the twin problems of reducing the deficit and fixing entrenched social problems. Making that case more widely though requires evidence. And evidence requires charities to do more than at present, as well as government to do more to support the sector (as we highlighted in a series of recent blog posts starting here). On that last note, the government should also want to support the sector in measurement of effectiveness and impact in order to ensure its plans for the Big Society deliver.