Speech by Dan Corry, NPC CEO, to NPC’s Ignites Conference October 2023.
We are fast approaching a general election. Amidst the major battles over the economy, public services, sleaze, and culture wars, where do charities fit in?
Having worked in the political world, I can confidently predict that charities, civil society, and philanthropy will not feature prominently. I’ll be surprised if there’s more than a paragraph or two about charities in anyone’s manifesto.
And yet much of what will be talked about actually concerns charities and civil society a great deal. Policies like devolution, children’s rights, social care, mental health, and criminal justice to name a few.
That charities go unmentioned even in debates on the issues we work on is not good. We need to change this.
Some of this may be ideological – on both sides. On both left and right, some doubt whether civil society can deliver, whilst others are outright hostile towards us. Civil society is an annoyance if you think there is no such thing as society, just individuals. At the other extreme, if you see the state as saviour then civil society becomes a barrier to delivering universal and fair public services, societal norms, and common standards.
But side-lining our sector is a mistake. The public sector, the private sector and civil society are the three legs our society rests on. Take one away and the whole stool wobbles. Whilst swing voters may not identify the ‘health of civil society’ among their top concerns, they do list the things civil society delivers and contributes to.
When we polled people on what the most important aspects of levelling up are, the biggest priorities were reducing homelessness, poverty, crime, and unemployment – all things that charities contribute to. So, it is a serious mistake to ignore this sector.
So there’s a pragmatic reason for politicians to take civil society seriously – we help deliver the outcomes they want to achieve.
But the third sector is also intrinsic to building a good society – a pluralist world, in which different voices and approaches have agency and space. One where people are connected to each other through the power of charities and voluntary action, where people’s basic desire to help others can be given voice and a vehicle.
And then there is the more cynical motive – and one that may get the politicians’ ears buzzing even if the other factors do not do the trick – which is that a strong civil society is linked to stronger voter turnout and can even help you win votes.
So, let’s go through some of these issues.
Pragmatic: getting things done
Governments have many objectives, many problems to solve. Some of this is just about keeping our schools, hospitals, and communities going. Sometimes there are desired outcomes – the current jargon for this being about having missions. And then governments have responsibility – which they will feel more or less depending on their politics – to those in distress, on low incomes, suffering in one way or another or indeed on the overall issue of inequalities.
Charities, funders, and the rest of the non-profit world can be vital to achieving a lot of that. They deliver many services, from frontline mental health support, to funding medical research. They fill gaps by doing what the state won’t or feels is too low a priority for some reason or another and adds value by doing what the state cannot do or does not do very well. By this I mean where relationships are key to helping someone and so trust really matters.
That is why charities are better in many ways at delivering certain services – especially to vulnerable people don’t trust anyone ‘official’ who holds power over them such as the social worker, the teacher, or the police officer.
Charities can prevent problems and build resilience – of people, of communities – and that helps reduce demand for public services, something that should be music to the ears of any budding Chancellor of the Exchequer.
This is key to building a strong economy, as much of the evidence of the role of social capital shows. And with the Treasury’s newfound interest in wellbeing (at least in terms of what’s in their ‘Green Book’ guide on how to make investment decisions), it is very relevant that so much of civil society’s activity aims to increase wellbeing for many – and also that volunteering tends to raise wellbeing.
But there is more that the sector brings.
Any politician or policy wonk will know that government must change things – must look at new ideas and approaches all the time. Yet it is very hard within public services for the state to innovate and take risks – especially big ones. We can argue as to the reasons for that, but I don’t see it changing.
On the other hand, philanthropy and the charities that they fund, can often take risks that those in charge of public spending feel unable to. So, if you want to try a new method of helping kids at school and pre-school then you need the charity sector.
SureStart was influenced by ideas charities had been playing around with for some time and I well remember from my time as a special adviser at the Department of Education, the Every Child a Reader programme that began as a trial funded by the KPMG Foundation and became very influential on how we thought about catch up in reading. And other subjects.
So if you want our public services to innovate and progress, in areas from mental health to reducing re-offending, you need to embrace the sector not treat it like a difficult relative to be patronized at best and ignored at worst.
So we have some very strong delivery reasons for politicians to take more account of civil society. But the case goes much further.
As I said in an NPC provocation paper a few years ago with Professor of Politics and Governance, Gerry Stoker:
“Civil society allows us to learn from our experiences of social exchange, and a stronger civil society reinforces our better selves and the values of solidarity. Its presence helps to sustain and spread those values.”
Or, as that scholar of philanthropy – in its broadest sense – Rhodri Davis recently said:
“altruism, generosity and gift giving are pretty fundamental parts of all human societies …. which create important connections of compassion, kinship and reciprocity”
Charities and philanthropy occupy a space neither dominated by the profit motive nor subject to the very strong accountability that is demanded of the state sector. Charities both locally and nationally harness the energies and desires for civil action that so many have.
Having a strong and lively civil society, with charities everywhere doing all sorts of things, is surely at the heart of a healthy democracy. It allows debate and collaboration to flourish and to grow. It gives space for different views and opinions. It brings new issues to the fore and stops groups being badly served. It gets people into the world of ‘civil engagement’ in which people develop concerns and explore active citizenship, all of which we should welcome.
I think too that civil society helps give us in this modern world something like our national conscience. For instance, helping and getting alongside those with very deep problems that are hard to put right but where our actions help create a more compassionate and empathetic world.
Some will say that politics has no time for these abstract ideas that are not about ‘kitchen table’ issues. The polls don’t show it as a key concern and focus groups rarely mention anything like this.
I think that is profoundly wrong. The visions of the kind of society that different versions of politics are trying to create is fundamental to how the public see them. So, it not only matters because it matters; it matters because it is part of what politics – and getting elected – is all about.
The Cynical: Wins you votes
But if that is all too up in the clouds for you, there is another more tangible case for politics to take civil society seriously.
I am a fan of politicians. I have worked mainly on the Labour side but also with many Conservative politicians when a civil servant, in my various think tank roles, and at NPC. I may or may not agree with all politicians all of the time, and I don’t think every one of them is unblemished, but I think most are in the business of trying to do what they see as ‘good’.
But I also know how obsessed they are with winning – their own seats and their party’s – and that means winning votes. And charities have a role here – positive and negative depending on where you sit.
Increasing turnout is something politicians (say) they want and that charities can help with. As an excellent blog by ex NPC-er David Bull pointed out in the run up to the 2015 election:
“Certain groups—young people, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, people with learning disabilities or people living in social housing, for example—are consistently under-represented at the polls. Charities and social enterprises have supported and spearheaded a number of campaigns designed to encourage these groups to vote.”
Simple analysis we have done suggests it is hard to find much correlation between higher charity density in an area and higher voter turnout in local elections. Some studies have suggested links including for particular types of demographics. I hope that academics and others might want to explore this further. But we do know that more engaged citizens are more likely to take part in things like elections and that active citizenship, that charities help with, is one way of cultivating that engagement.
Added to this, there is good evidence that charities and volunteering increase wellbeing, and that higher wellbeing does have an impact on voter turnout. Again, I don’t want to claim too much, but the links are fascinating.
There could be even more. There is pretty good evidence that higher wellbeing – that civil society can help deliver – leads to more votes for the incumbent party.  Maybe not a surprising finding but one that I suspect Rishi Sunak is well aware of!
More directly, charity campaigning raises issues that can chime with the public and galvanise them. They can mobilise their supporters to push things onto the agenda that may or may not help you in your constituency or indeed your party overall. We have seen examples of this, for instance with the climate crisis, or a few years ago on the perceived threats to the countryside with the Countryside Alliance.
Of course, charities must be careful to keep the right side of the rules and not undertake overtly party-political campaigns, but as long as they are doing that, they can be powerful voices on your side. Trying to silence them – as has been done in various ways over recent years – is not a sensible way forward for a pluralist democracy.
And nor do the public think that. Our State of the Sector work is out later this year, but I can today share with you one finding from the survey of the public which is that only 22% of Conservative voters think charities are too political compared to 63% who say they get it ‘about right’.
What does all this mean that politicians should do?
I’m not saying that politicians should spend all their time thinking about charities. But I’m sure many of us would like to ask why MPs spend a lot of time with – and laud – their local charities, but at the national level they see it all very differently. Occasional, token meetings with the representative bodies is not enough.
We need a different relationship, a different ‘vibe’ between government and the charity sector.
So, we need conversations at all levels – with politicians, with their officials. For government and opposition parties. Making sure you have folk with civil society experience as MPs, advisers, and civil servants.
There should be policies to make sure that these interactions happen and that charities are involved in policy framing, delivery, and other discussions. There are plenty of ideas here, many of which I have written about – for instance in my work with Gerry Stoker like bringing back a souped up version of the Compact between the sector and government; creating a PM chaired council, as Gordon Brown did, to give the sector profile and bite within Whitehall; getting all public services to have to publish their plans for how they will work with the sector. Maybe even bring in a civil society test for policies: asking every time, could this be better delivered with the voluntary sector than via some top-down contracting system?..Your attitude towards charities and how you will work with them should be part of your election campaign – and you should be talking with them, all sorts of charities, especially now with an election looming.
There is only a year or so at most for this to happen. We as a sector, as sector leaders, need to be out there pitching to the political parties to take our sector seriously, making the argument, proving our worth, showing that we can help them in their various endeavours, showing our importance as an independent voice to a complete and confident society ‘at ease with itself’ – and that we are not just out there pleading for more money.
I urge our politicians to listen, and hope all of us will get out there to try our best to make them do so.
 SureStart was heavily influenced by the US scheme Headstart but also by other voluntary sector initiatives like Penn Green in Corby and the Coram Family in Camden (thanks to Naomi Eisenstadt for personal correspondence on this. See also Start right at the beginning;Interview;Naomi Eisenstadt;People | Tes Magazine )
 See eg How youth volunteering increases young voter turnout: the impact on citizenship – Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (wiserd.ac.uk) with regard to young people whose parents are not politically engaged.
 Does Volunteering Make Us Happier, or Are Happier People More Likely to Volunteer? Addressing the Problem of Reverse Causality When Estimating the Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering | SpringerLink
 Volunteering – wellbeing – volunteering: a virtuous cycle? – What Works Wellbeing
 Happiness and Voting Behavior | The World Happiness Report
 Happiness and Voting: Evidence from Four Decades of Elections in Europe – Ward – 2020 – American Journal of Political Science – Wiley Online Library
 see How should Labour work with the voluntary sector in government? (thinknpc.org)