Charities are no longer the good guys

EDITOR'S BLOG: Hit by successive scandals and crises, the third sector is ripe for a fundamental rethink.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 12 Nov 2015

'She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate

And forgot about a simple twist of fate'

Bob Dylan

The idea of charity is that we give because we ought. It's supposed to come naturally to civilised, humane citizens. The blind man at the gate gets his coin because of an altruistic impulse that is deeply ingrained within us. Sensing this natural instinct, many religions lay down ground rules for giving: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism. Zakat is the third of the Five Pillars of Islam.

In the last few decades, charities have become complex, mechanised big businesses from whom we buy conscience. Oxfam, for example, to which I give my monthly contribution, raised £401 million last year. It's important that they should be businesslike in the way they are managed, but they are not businesses.

They have become slick marketeers: nobody hectors like the single issue NGO. Where can you turn after watching a 30-second NSPCC ad showing a bruised toddler? So, it is not in charities' interests to give us the balanced truth about the world. In a fight to the death for funds every cause must be the most desperate. As Saint Bob Geldof put it - 'just give us yer fockin' money'. With ongoing austerity and cutbacks in government social spending, it's likely that the third sector will be called upon to attend to the less fortunate in society. However, charities are going to need a rethink and then clean up their acts. One scandal after another has beset them recently. And yet if I forgo my Pret sandwich twice next week and send the money saved via a charity to Malawi, it would pay for a cataract operation to help a 10-year-old regain her sight. And there is no arguing with that.

I used to visit Smiths (WH) as a child. They had Top Trumps and 45rpm vinyl on which I could blow my pocket money. Nowadays it's only at airports I ever venture inside when I fork out £4.99 for a comic to keep the kids quiet as we go through the Hades of security. WHSmith has become a down-at-heel business. It's clinging on by a ruthless process of cost-cutting and trying to upsell us massive bars of Dairy Milk at a till we have to operate ourselves because there are no staff left. Shopping there among its tattered carpets is an utterly joyless experience.

Our Top 100 Entrepreneurs list shows it needn't be like this. In the top spot are the Arora brothers and their B&M discount chain, which is hailed as the new Woolworths. You can still hack it on the British high street.

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