An editorial in yesterday’s NZ Herald gave the hard-line conservative and quite stupid view of what a charity should be (and has been). According the anonymous author, charities should and must deal with problems of society without attempting to fix the problem through advocating changes that would fix the problems that they are providing relief for. How else can you interpret the following?
Advocacy is not charity. It might be a selfless unpaid activity undertaken for the greater good as the advocates see it, but it is not serving anybody’s personal material needs.
Yeah right. In your libertarian dreams. It seems to suggest that the only problems that charities should deal with should be limited to the material needs of individual humans.
Charities raise funds to give to the needy or to pay for goods and services for them. When people respond to their appeals, they are entitled to expect that their money will help the needy directly, and that not too much of it will go to the administration of the appeal or the charity. Charities that also indulge in political advocacy put their fund-raising ability at risk.
Huh? This must come as a hell of a shock to the ghost of those who contributed to those charities and non-profit organisations who over the centuries have worked on providing the parks, education, public health initiatives, fire services, public works like sewerage and water systems, preservation of ecologies, the welfare of our associated animals, and even those long-lasting spiritual societies who have provided charitable services of the past few millennia. Many of these services are now provided by taxes and governmental organisations. But in our western systems they were almost invariably started and advocated for by charities.
Sure, some of that was done for the material benefit of individual people. But almost all charitable enterprises of the past were orientated towards structural lacks in society and frequently were not concerned with individuals. But more on that later. Lets establish the position of the editorial.
Advocacy usually involves contentious argument from a clear political position. Charities of course can also be politically contentious – if they appear to be exposing government failure, creating dependence or stigmatising recipients – but they attract a tax rebate because there is general recognition that they meet needs that might otherwise have to be met from public funds.
What a strange view and distorted view of what either charities and politics does in reality. Contrary to the frequently expressed opinion of right-wing nut-jobs, politicians typically lag the general views of society by a decade or more. They don’t tend to lag as much as the overall legal system, especially judges or the police. But all these professions tend towards following the existing consensus of the wider population rather than leading it.
Charitable organisations usually spring up to provide early relief of an perceived ill of society. They advocate for relief to happen, usually provide it, and advocate for change in the political and legal to redress or to prevent it. Their role in society is to create the “general recognition” of an issue. Of course they frigging well advocate politically or otherwise (is there any difference?) to bring the issue to the attention of the general population and politicians. They are definitely not the passive pawns that this idiot fantasises about. If you read back in the history of most charities, there is inevitably a period where even the most currently respected charities were viewed as being dangerous radicals.
The quote describes where charities may eventually may wind up long long after they have done their important work. But it is not how they start… For instance, St John’s ambulance is a relatively recent (by my timesense) charity derived from a much older order. Their history of why they formed is quite clear.
New Zealand in the 1880s wasn’t a good place to have an accident or to get ill suddenly. Even though people were highly susceptible to injury because they were mostly doing manual jobs, medical services were scant.
In April 1885 at a public meeting in St Mary’s Church, Christchurch, Reverend Thomas Flavell and Dr Walter Hacon proposed that the St John Ambulance Association be introduced to the colony. Their initiative led to the rapid establishment of St John throughout New Zealand.
They were part of the general charitable movement in the 19th century that advocated the provision of ambulance and medical services that today we take for granted. They provided the initial services using volunteers and charitable donations and lobbied the people and governments to provide the non-charitable publically funded service that we now take for granted as being part of our infrastructure.
While St Johns may still operate as a charity, these days most of their funding for the basic ambulance services is provided these days by the state. The successful provision of these services by a charity was proved to be of benefit to the population as a whole that we as taxpayers now largely fund it. After all the ambulance service is part of the reason why I’m able to write this post – their quick service in 2011 got me to the hospital alive.
The charitable contributions given to St Johns largely go to providing and advocating for new services – not those started over a century ago. And they concentrate on providing what society needs not just that of individuals who they see usually only for minutes.
Or look at the provision of the historical services provided by Auckland’s War Memorial Museum. While their governance is no longer a charity, I know that they are supported by charities for the advocacy projects for the betterment of whole of Auckland.
The museum movement (as anyone who has been around them will testify ) are very strong (ie pretty obsessional) advocates for preserving and curating the knowledge and artifacts of history. They are quite interested in extracting charitable donations to make that happen and to provide widespread free or near free access to the wider community. But their focus is and was on addressing a need of the broader society rather than providing a individually focused relief.
Contrary to the myopically narrow view of the Herald editorial, if you look around at the cornucopia of services that in our modern society that we currently pay for with our taxes you will usually see something started by a charity. Invariably you’ll find that they were first proposed, advocated for, and set up as charities using donations and volunteers.
Those charities working in the field continued to advocate both politically and for general acceptance for the more general provision of those services as part of the more general social framework, and usually eventually successful. Charities are the decadal response of societies to problems. They triage problems for society and the political system. Of course they advocate for change…
Quite simply the anonymous writer at the NZ Herald has philosophy of effective and workable charities completely arse about face. There is no point in merely patching the ills and shortfalls of societies if you don’t also try to figure out how to prevent them from happening in the future.
Now I have very little sympathy for the knuckle dragging misogynists at Family First. Nor for the shrill vengeful vindictiveness of the misnamed Sensible Sentencing Trust. I do now have far more respect for current Greenpeace than I had for their antics decades ago. But in all of these organisations they are following the path for most successful charities of the past. They don’t just try to deal with the fallout of a perceived societal ill, they advocate for a change to get rid of the problem. That is their role and about the only reason that people of good will would get involved with them.
But the charities of the model that the NZ Herald editorial seems to prefer are those who did not try to advocate change. Historically they are those who were supplanted by more effective advocates or who have gone into history as perpetuating the problem that they were “relieving”. The charitable workhouses of the 19th century or the charitable adoption factories “caring” for unmarried mothers in the 20th are well and unfondly remembered examples.
These are the types of charities that society does not need nor does it want to encourage. And yet the rules advocated by both the editorial and the old Charities commission’s rulings would favour these parasitical enterprises over those that prefer to work themselves out of a role (and usually into fixing other problems). My view would be that we definitely do not want the state to forgo tax revenue to support organisations who are not advocating for a change in whatever ill of society, local or overseas, that they are working on. It is a pointless waste of our resources. However one of the hallmarks of a effective charity should be the extent to which it tries to eliminate the issue over which it formed – by lobbying, PR, and political advocacy.
Nor is the task of charities to merely provide for the “needy”, “personal material needs”, and the similar libertarian obsessions with the individual. Most successful current and past charities have advocated for and provided material and services for the betterment of societies. From libraries, to parks, to museums, to the protection of the natural environment; the history of successful charities of the past is littered with examples.
It beggars belief that even the strange people who write the anonymous editorials at the Herald should be so ignorant of the history charities that they’d write such a silly opinion. But it does make it clear that to write editorials there that a clear lack of understanding of history coupled with a simple-minded unthinking ideological stupidity.
Perhaps they should also consider writing for Whaleoil…