Monday, 3 August 2009

A true charity

Last week we received a sad reminder of what real charities do. The former footballer and football manager Sir Bobby Robson died at the age of 76 after having suffered from one type of cancer or another for more than fifteen years. During that period he set up the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation to fund research related to cancer and, in particular, to assist in clinical trials of new anti-cancer drugs and treatments.

The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation is funded by private and corporate donations, using Sir Bobby's name and reputation and those of many other figures from the world of football to persuade people and companies to part with their cash. This type of charity is the very epitome of what a charity should be. The work it funds could be funded out of taxation if someone in government chose to do so, as it is Sir Bobby decided he wanted to see more spent in the field so he went about raising money specifically for that purpose. Could other aspects of cancer research make a case for additional funding? Could other areas of medicine make a case? Of course the answer to both questions is that they could, but that is nothing to do with it because it was Sir Bobby's decision what should happen to the money raised in his name.

It is reasonable to infer that those who have given to this charity would not have volunteered to pay additional tax in the same amount. Even if they had paid voluntary additional tax they would have had no say over where it went once it was in the hands of the Treasury. Instead they chose to delve into their post-tax income to fund a specific area of work regardless of whether the government considers it of sufficient priority to warrant additional money.

That is at the heart of true charities. They are about individual priorities rather than priorities laid down from on high. This reflects the position that has been taken consistently through time, until very recently. The law has not asked the question "is this organisation a charity"? Rather it has asked "is the purpose for which this organisation exists a charitable purpose"? The distinction is extremely important because it places the emphasis on the general purpose for which an organisation exists not on the specifics of how that organisation seeks to attain that purpose. The reason for this is that different people have different views of the benefit of certain types of activity which are considered by law to be charitable. Because charitable donation is an individual thing, reflecting the values of individual donors, the law does not claim to have better judgment than the individuals who make voluntary donations. Provided the general purpose of the donee falls within the established categories of charitable purposes, the wishes of individual donors are respected.

For example, preventing suffering to animals is a charitable purpose, both under the old law and under the Charities Act 2006. Those of us with the good sense to despise cats can recognise that others take a different view and an organisation dedicated to preventing suffering to cats is, on the face of it, fulfilling a charitable purpose. Of course there are certain formal requirements to ensure that such an organisation is indeed concerned with its stated charitable purpose before it can be registered as a charity, but all of that is secondary; if its stated purpose is not charitable it doesn't get off the starting blocks.

As with so many things, the current government considers charitable status to be a political matter and has placed one of its most loyal Labour Party puppets in charge of the Charity Commission so that only those organisations that further Labour Party policy will be afforded the tax and other privileges that go with being a registered charity. Recently they decided that education is only a charitable purpose if it accords with the Labour Party's view of what schools should do. This was never an issue before because government recognised that all educational facilities are beneficial to some children and that was sufficient in itself for bona fide educational establishments to be afforded charitable status.

The danger with this new approach (which is almost certainly unlawful) is that it introduces narrow political considerations into a field which, for more than four hundred years, has stood outside factional politics and has respected the values and judgments of the little people whether or not they accorded with the views of the government of the day. Part of the process of politicising charities has been to refer to them as "the third sector", the other two being government and private business. Instead of charities being numerous separate organisations dedicated to specific charitable purposes they are lumped together and even have their own Minister of State. Once they have been classified in this way the government can seek to justify ever greater regulation and control, citing the amount of money charitable organisations administer as justification for any amount of interference. Once that is accomplished it is inevitable that the "third sector" is treated as something for government to control in ever increasing detail; in effect making it a tool of government policy rather than a diverse collection of individual organisations each with its own priorities, procedures and aims.

Where does the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation stand in this brave new order? At the moment it can operate as Sir Bobby wished it to - adding research facilities which did not otherwise exist and concentrating its work in the north east of England. But for how long? When will it be required to merge its work with other cancer research conducted within the NHS? When will it be required to limit its research into only those matters government considers a priority? Who knows, but I'm not holding my breath.

Others write about the misuse of charitable status by overtly political campaigns, details of many of which can be found at That is bad enough. To subvert the very essence of charitable work by seeking to impose value judgments based on political considerations over and above the values and judgments of individual donors is to deny the very basis of charity.


Young Mr. Brown said...

I've been involved with charities over several years, and, like you, am not happy about the current government's increasing regulation of charities, and suspect if it wanting to ensure that all charities fit with its own ideology.

I note with interest that you opine that this new approach "is almost certainly unlawful". Why do you think so?

Ayrdale said...

FB OT, I know. But as a little pick me up you could do worse than visit the new Aussie blogger Kaboom !

Interesting chap with some novel ideas re the green church, amusing comments too...

james c said...


The sentiment behind such charities is admirable, but I wouldn't expect any medical advances to come from it.

gyges said...

Don't you think that the Charities Act 2006 is going to cut both ways? Accepted not necessarily at the Charities Tribunal but certainly at a proper court.

If so, shouldn't it be welcomed? Instead of criticising the Act, shouldn't we criticise those who whine and whinge about fake charities but don't do anything about them?

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, good point

TheFatBigot said...

Mr Brown, the reason I think the current approach of the Charity Commission is probably unlawful is that the 2006 Act was not intended to bring about a change in the law, merely to put it into statutory form. If that is correct, "rulings" by the Commission based on political considerations do not comply with the law because political considerations were irrelevant before.

As an example, in the pre-statute days a school was a school was a school. The fact that it provided education was, of itself, sufficient for it to perform a recognised charitable purpose. That it might have limited its intake to the sons of the clergy or the children on serving members of the armed forces was irrelevant, all that mattered was that it provided education.