Help for Heroes and the MoD: How close is too close for charities and government?

By John Copps 9 August 2012

Military charity Help for Heroes is tonight included in a BBC Newsnight investigation into charity and state provision of care for military personnel. As the most high profile charity in the area, the investigation includes complaints from wounded troops about how it chooses to spend money.

There’s no doubt that Help for Heroes is one of the most extraordinary stories of fundraising in modern times. Since 2007 it has raised an eye-watering amount of money for the care of returning soldiers. There was a point a year or two ago when you couldn’t get away from street collectors, colourful wristbands, and celebrities pledging it their support.

But soldiers have criticised the charity for not being there when they need it. The claim is that Help for Heroes has been ‘getting cosy’ with the MoD and is paying for things the government want, rather than what soldiers need.

What should we make of this criticism? Well, it’s difficult to comment on the specifics without knowing more. Clearly no charity can do all things for all people, but every charity has a responsibility to ensure it is acting in the best interests of beneficiaries.

I suspect that the soldiers’ comments are as much a criticism of the MoD. Nonetheless, the relationship between charities and the state is an important and hotly debated area – but one where there’s always been more heat than light.

Charity law is clear that charities are independent, governed by a board of trustees who are responsible for decision-making. But charities don’t live in splendid isolation. They are part of a system that includes the public and private sector and they have to react to the environment they are in.

It can be difficult line to tread. Disability charity Livability provides residential living support to disabled people. It provides services under contract with government (who pay for a certain defined standard of accommodation) and ‘tops-up’ these services with extra living space, using charitable funds. Elsewhere, charitable income pays for around a third of hospice care and 100% of the cost of many air ambulances and lifeboats – something that most of the public assume is the government’s responsibility.

Ultimately, it is up to the trustees of charities to decide if and how they work with government. This requires a clear vision and strategy, and effective management – and that won’t come as a surprise to anyone.