The Challenges of 21st Century Charity

As 2018 draws to a close, a turbulent year for the British charity sector, Y Care International’s Chair of Trustee’s David French reflects on the constructive challenges charities in the 21st-century face. Here, David explores necessities such as transparency, reputation and a consistent revenue model that fall within Britain’s precious asset . 

A global gold standard

Through a sea change in the role and perceptions of the voluntary/charity/third/not-for-profit sector – never able to settle on a single descriptive title to match the ‘private’ and ‘public’ sectors – a distinctive hallmark still runs strongly through a sector which now includes 168,000 registered charities attracting annual income of £77.4 billion[1].  As I saw in my time as CEO of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (2003-09) the UK’s model of charity, as an institutional means to channel the engagement of ordinary citizens behind causes dear to them, remains a global gold standard.  Just as Westminster is understood across the world as ‘The Mother of Parliaments’, so the British model of charities sets a standard many other countries seek to copy but few have developed to the UK’s level of reach and richness.

It was in 1971, aged 24, that I joined the staff of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Giving up a private sector job to work for a charity was a pretty odd thing to do in the early 70s, with few obvious ‘career prospects’ in the conventional perspective of the time. I had little idea that I would still be connected to the sector almost 50 years later, now as Chair of the board trustees at Y Care International, the international aid agency of the YMCAs of the UK and Ireland. And, I am delighted to say, that I haven’t regretted my 24 year old’s self’s-decision once.

From high profile failures in leadership or governance (think Kids’ Company or more recently the sequence of safeguarding failures) to the habit of successive governments meddling with or co-opting the sector in pursuit of its own targets, to continuing weaknesses in the sector’s model of accountability, to the financial knife-edge which has always characterised a high proportion of the sector. Yet throughout all these patterns the sector remains a basic element in our national life, still fundamentally strong.

This is an extraordinary asset! Less understood is the extent to which social movements which now have an international or global footprint have their roots in this country. The YMCA movement, that is present today in 119 countries and reaches 58 million people, was founded in 1844 in London by George Williams, a 22 year old draper.  The National Marriage Guidance Council ,founded in the UK in 1938 and whose name was changed to Relate in 1988 in my first year as CEO, was replicated as far afield as Australia, South Africa and elsewhere.


That’s all very well.  Equally true, there have been few moments over the last 50 years when the sector has not had cause to fear for its integrity, its funding or even its future.  Three issues are worth discussing here.

First, reputational risk. It is always front of mind and, if it’s not, it should be. Serving a public often confused by the disorderliness of the sector, charities are always vulnerable to exposure when they fall short – viz. Oxfam’s announced £16 million cuts this year following its safeguarding scandal.  There is no alternative, nor should there be, to the sector maintaining the highest oversight standards and fair claims that other sectors, including inter-governmental organisations, are just as exposed are no kind of excuse.

Second, while many charities now have the capability to take on large sums of grant or contract funding with public sector donors, they necessarily increase their exposure when funding comes to an end. The Hope Centre, the main charity for the poor and the homeless in the English town of Northampton, which looks after a hundred and twenty people every day, was issued with an eviction notice last month as a bi-product of the local council’s own response to government austerity cuts.  It is just one of very many current examples.

Third, when the global economy is changing rapidly at the hands of bright entrepreneurs capitalising on the IT revolution, or when public funding moves elsewhere or dries up, charities are challenged to rethink their business models.  No harm in that. Not-for-profit leaders are not slow to demonstrate ingenuity that is a hallmark of the sector, but we must never forget that charities exist to serve the most needy – at home and across the world. Y Care International’s work is entirely focused on helping the most disadvantaged young people in the developing world into decent work. That is a noble mission and we have built a great reputation where we work, as I saw myself in Palestine last month, but there are limits to private sector revenue models in fulfilling an essential service such as this.

What charities need most of all, though times are as tough as any I have known, is consistency of support from their many generous donors backed by a consistent framework of government policy which underpins and enables this precious British asset I have known and worked with many ministers and public officials who get this very well, just as I continue to be humbled by the commitment of many thousands of ordinary but extraordinary people who make charity possible in the most unpromising settings.


David French

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[1] Charity Commission statistics, September 2018

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