Our take on this week’s government anticlimax

The government has finally responded to the House of Lords Select Committee report on Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society—ten months after its publication. This was a report that NPC contributed to and gave oral evidence to.

Earlier this week members of the Lords discussed the report and the government’s response to it. Nathan Yeowell, NPC’s new Head of Policy and External Affairs, has four reflections on the debate and the status of the report as we look forward to the year ahead.

What took them so long?

Baroness Pitkeathley spoke for many of her colleagues—and much of the sector, I’d wager—when she asked the government ‘what on earth took you so long?’.

It’s fair to say that the government’s response, whilst full of warm words about the strength and diversity of the sector, is light on plans to tackle the many challenges and opportunities facing us.

I wonder whether this is a deliberate ruse from officials. Maybe they’ve been beavering away, fizzing with so many ideas, that their initial plans have evolved into the bare bones of the new Civil Society Strategy that they’ve promised us this year.

Of course, even the consultation phase is yet to begin but when it does, we will be enthusiastically taking part, making sure that the insights from our State of the Sector work drives the agenda.

More mergers? Or better mergers?

Baroness Jenkin made a really important point about the need for the sector to take a different look at the always-thorny issue of mergers, arguing that ‘mergers should be seen as a success, not a failure, and the charitable sector should be encouraged to merge where appropriate. What matters is for the beneficiaries to get the best service’.

Mission should be sacrosanct, not institutional integrity. The widespread belief in the sector that most mergers are little more than acquisitions is one of many factors holding organisations back from even exploring the idea.

We believe there are a range of possibilities under the heading ‘merger’ and are currently working on research into the possibilities for greater cooperation between charities. Watch this space.

Time to start thinking about our relationship with the state?

A number of Lords raised issues and tensions between the sector and the state, and suggested that it may be time for a rethink. Is it time, as Baroness Scott suggested, for us to use new devolution settlements as both cause and opportunity for us to hammer out new, more fundamental partnership arrangements with local government?

Having spent over a decade in local government before joining NPC, I want to do some fresh thinking about this. In particular, I’ll be looking how we align local charitable missions with wider public service strategies for place. I’m keen to know your views on this, so please do get in touch.

What about impact?

It wouldn’t be an NPC blog if I didn’t mention impact—and it’s good to see that many members of the House of Lords see this as a continuing priority for the sector in the months and years ahead.

In particular, there was continued reference to the fact in Monday’s debate that gauging and measuring effective impact is far from easy. This is of course true, and as all our work and publications say, you need to treat this area carefully.

But difficulty should not dissuade charities and funders from trying to assess impact in whatever way is sensible and proportionate for them: otherwise they will be making resource allocation decisions on a wing and a prayer.

The Bishop of Durham was concerned that ‘The less tangible nature of tasks such as combating social isolation and loneliness, and building community cohesion and belonging at a local level, do not always fit neatly into impact assessments.’

He is right that they often do not, but we do need to keep looking at ways of trying to get at the impact of these key outcomes, not rejecting the whole approach. That’s NPC’s mission and I’m excited to be helping push it forward this year.

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