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For all the talk about welfare pluralism and a fresh role for voluntary institutions in the 1990s, there was an assumption that the state was still in charge, but it should offer charities a more prominent role in social provision. Definitions matter, and now the government rather than the charities provided them. For centuries, the standard definition of charity was "Christian love", or "love of one's fellow man", or simply "kindness". But as Britain moved from being a voluntary society to a collectivist one, from a Christian society to a secular one, such meanings looked decidedly old-fashioned. Consequently, the definition of charity has come up for bureaucratic review, to make it more compatible with the national, secular and corporate priorities of government.

An important update on offer came with the Charities Act of 2006, which defined charity as "public benefit". The usage reflects a government agenda which seeks to offer a concordat with its junior partners in the voluntary sector. But as charity comes under ministerial control, it is effectively depersonalised. One of the complaints I sometimes hear from charitable campaigners today, particularly women, is that government funding and the corporate nature of many institutions are driving out traditions of personal ministration. In the press, the criticism is typically that today's voluntary workers lack the human touch and spend less and less time on their visits to beneficiaries. One is reminded of Josephine Butler's remark that legislative programmes are masculine and charity feminine. What we are witnessing today, as charity becomes more corporate and bureaucratic, is its masculinisation.

The Charities Act 2006 reads as though written by a robot. It lacks any sense of the past, and you will look in vain for the words kindness, love, or, for that matter, Christianity. It is a measure of religious decline in Britain that the definition of "religion" in the Act includes belief in more than one God and belief in no god at all. Now that, one might say, is being ecumenical with the truth. The resort to phrases like "public benefit" is an example of the administrative mind forging a conceptual language to justify the state's ascendancy in welfare provision. This conforms to a presumption that citizens become moral agents through compulsory taxation to pay for universal benefits. But this notion that we become compassionate through compulsion and proxy is a flattering self-deception, especially as universal benefits often accrue to those who do not need them. Perhaps we can look forward to the day when the Inland Revenue sets up its own charitable trust, to receive donations from citizens who wish to top up their taxes with gifts to the Treasury.

Voluntary action extends well beyond what the political language can provide. Officialdom is impatient with anything casual or humble, what Wordsworth called "that best portion of a good man's life — his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love". Of course, charities need to be businesslike and efficient in order to spend their donors' money wisely, but they should not be judged by performance indicators alone. Victorian legislators had wisely avoided defining charity too narrowly, for they assumed that it was preferable for charities to define the citizenry.  But in highly centralized democracies like Britain, politicians, whatever their party allegiance, seem unable to resist co-opting rival centres of authority.

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Malcolm McLean
November 11th, 2014
2:11 AM
Running a charity is a good middle class route to influence and government funds. There's usually an element of sincere motive, but pretty soon a grant or partnership comes along. That's so important to the charity that retaining this relationship becomes the overriding priority. People running the charity also benefit personally, if not by direct financial compensation, then indirectly by being asked to help formulate government policy, which is flattering, and tends to turn into financial benefit.

Malcolm McLean
November 11th, 2014
2:11 AM
Running a charity is a good middle class route to influence and government funds. There's usually an element of sincere motive, but pretty soon a grant or partnership comes along. That's so important to the charity that retaining this relationship becomes the overriding priority. People running the charity also benefit personally, if not by direct financial compensation, then indirectly by being asked to help formulate government policy, which is flattering, and tends to turn into financial benefit.

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