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The use of charities to do the government's bidding has been criticised as a devolved form of government administration that turns the intermediary institutions of civil society into agencies of the state through contracts and financial control. This does not alarm defenders of government partnerships, who argue that cooperation with the state arose from the historic failings of charitable societies. They are inclined to see critics of the contract culture as reactionaries, living in a Victorian dreamland. Clearly, the world has moved on over the last century, but we are in no position to look down on the Victorians. Look around, we owe much of our cultural, medical, and religious infrastructure to their benevolence. The original Church House was built to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

Since the 1980s, a few social critics and a smattering of politicians have argued that government funding and the voluntary ethos are incompatible. In the eyes of such commentators, we are witnessing a further stage in the perfection of the state monolith under the guise of partnership, a process that one charitable director calls a "cultural takeover by stealth". The appetite for state contracts and grants has grown to the point where the question is now being asked how institutions paid for out of compulsory taxation, which would not exist without state subsidies, can be called voluntary. As most of us will agree, charitable independence is a slippery concept, which has received several tortuous analyses in recent years. The next time it is under examination I would suggest the employment of a language philosopher rather than a team of lawyers.

In contemporary Britain, charitable officials often come from a background in government service and wish to distance themselves from the hierarchies and pieties of the charitable past. For them, partnerships are what enlivens the voluntary sector and makes their labours possible. The agreement titled "Getting it right together", which was signed in 1998, provided a framework for cooperation between central government and voluntary organisations. It recognised the diversity of volunteering and sought greater recognition for volunteers. But the agreement skirted the issue of independence, preferring to emphasise that volunteering was open to everyone. 

The government's recognition and promotion of volunteering has much to recommend it. And while few doubt that the work done by state charities is valuable, the nagging issue of their independence will not go away. There is bound to be a cost to autonomy, personal ministration and civic democracy when charities become enmeshed in government regulation and what overseers call "service delivery". Complex contracting arrangements, have created, as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) observes, bureaucratic "pitfalls". Who is the volunteer working for in this compact? Those charities that work closely with the local or central government are more likely to shape their priorities to suit available grants, to create their own bureaucracies, to distance charitable campaigners from beneficiaries, and to play down religion. As they become larger, they take on the character of government departments.

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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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