‘Big, bureaucratic charities sometimes put organisational ambitions ahead of mission’

Civil Society, by Alice Sharman


When charities have a big role in providing public services, the stories of “aggressive empire building behaviour” and charities putting “organisational ambitions ahead of their charitable mission” are too common, a BBC radio show has revealed.

The second episode of The Charity Business, a three-part series presented by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, aired on Friday and focused on service delivery .

Taylor said that “the fact is, particularly in those areas where charities have a big role providing public services, stories abound of aggressive empire building behaviour”.

He added that: “Big, inevitably bureaucratic charities, which rely almost entirely on public contracts seem sometimes to put their organisational ambitions ahead of their charitable mission.”

He said that if you look hard, you can find that charities “aren’t as transparent as you might expect”. He said that Oxfam supporters have recently become aware of that, and that “it can take a scandal to lift the rock on bad practice”.

Taylor spoke to Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy and communications at Lloyds Bank Foundation, who said that sometimes smaller and local charities are much more equipped to deal with certain issues that are instead being taken up by the big service delivery charities.

He said: “If you want a human solution, you need a human scaled charitable response. And sadly too often what we are seeing is the money moving into the generic, the standardised larger charity, and away from the human, passionate, expert and specialist charity. And that fails the client, it fails the tax payer and it fails that charity.”

‘Hoovering up the contracts’

Asked whether the problem lies with the contractor or the large charities taking on the contracts, Shrubsole said: “The responsibility has to primarily rest with the commissioner and what is it they want to do.

“But secondly, it does take two to tango. And you do get some larger charities who consciously sit there driven by wanting to increase their market share, who are moving into areas where they don’t necessarily have a track record of either specialism or geographical footprint, and are sometimes literally hoovering up the contracts.”

He added that “large charities shouldn’t behave like a Serco, or a Carillion or a G4S, otherwise it is only the same as a Serco, or a Carillion or a G4S”.

Taylor concluded that the state is treating charities as “cut-price service deliverers, and the sector itself sometimes losing sight of its mission in the dash for growth”.