The Sunday Times

November 20th, 2011

The charity juggernaut that leaves the poor shivering

There is something extremely irritating about celebrities, no matter how distinguished, telling other people what to do with their money. Dame Helen Mirren has just announced she thinks that rich old people who don’t need their £200-plus government winter fuel handout should give it to poor old people who do. This makes our national theatrical treasure sound just another bossy thesp.

Lots of other celebs are in on this, too. Among their number are Lord and Baroness Kinnock, Gloria Hunniford, June Whitfield, Lord Archer, David Jason, Sir Terry Wogan, Sir Michael Parkinson and Ann Widdecombe. There’s glory for you.

All the same, they are right. Old people who wouldn’t even notice a credit of £200 on their bank statements should not accept this universal handout from the state. Nor should people who, while not filthy rich, simply don’t need it. Rather than give it back to the exchequer, like Lord Hattersley, so it can be wasted elsewhere, they should give it to old people who really need it to stay warm.

This good but faintly daft idea is not new.

Iain Duncan Smith mentioned it to me more than a year ago at a party, when I asked him about the obvious old socialist absurdity of universal winter fuel payments. This benefit to everyone over 60 costs £2.1 billion; while many of those people don’t need it, there are now well over 204,400 households with someone over 60 who are living in so-called fuel poverty.

It is surely right to spend state money to which we are supposedly entitled on people who need it more. Just as with people who personally give their child benefit to children who are needier than their own, it ought to be a satisfyingly direct process.

Not so, unfortunately, if one is to follow the example of the righteous thespians. Mirren and others recommend giving the winter fuel money to a charity called the Community Foundation Network (CFN), which will then redistribute it to other charities and community organisations helping the elderly, which will then presumably distribute it to those in need.

How the heart sinks. What about cutting out the charitable middleman? What about cutting out the charity — the several charities, and their staff — that stands between giving and receiving? Why not give the fuel money directly to a fuel-poor person? Imagine what would happen to Dame Elderly Richperson’s £200 or so if she gave it to a charity such as the CFN. It would go into an expensively run bureaucratic pot, and from there into a perhaps rather less expensively run bureaucratic pot, to be distributed much later. If anything but a few pence of that £200 finally reached Mrs Elderly Poorperson, it would be a miracle as great as the feeding of the five thousand.

Something has gone horribly wrong with charity. It is disappearing behind a swelling cloud of bureaucratisation, networking, interfacing, meetings, travelling, expenses and duplication of all kinds.

Without any sinister intentions, the world of charity has become a jobsworth’s jamboree, at several removes from the needy, and consumes, with the highest of intentions, much of the money that is given for the needy. And with its increasing professionalisation and national networking, it becomes difficult — impossible, sometimes — for small local charities to fundraise directly and personally. For that, small charities now need to go to an organisation such as the CFN.

The CFN appears to be entirely respectable. A large, complex organisation, it is doubtless full of good, well-meaning people with all sorts of useful skills, some unpaid and many paid. Its purpose is to encourage community foundations nationwide, in “a movement … committed to positive social change in the UK through the development of ‘community philanthropy’ ” — an aim surely as long as a piece of charitable string.

It says it also “has a role as national membership association for community foundations which encompasses negotiating and managing national grant-making and funding opportunities on behalf of its members and providing direct technical assistance to member community foundations through its network”.

How little this seems to have to do with anything simple such as giving small sums of money to individual elderly men and women who will be cold this winter. The language alone gives an idea of what has happened to charities, with their wittering about interfacing between “funding streams” and negotiating “the big ask” . It makes complex — and will stifle — the human instinct for generosity.

I don’t mean to attack this charity in particular. What I suggest more generally is that people who want to give money should cut out the middleman and give it to a real person. Most people’s daily lives will bring them into contact, if only at second hand, with a sad story that a bit of cash might make less sad. Otherwise, the vicar or the rabbi or the imam or the local nurse or the head of the local comp should be able to make suggestions. Of course that route is imperfect, but it is surely better and faster than the cumbersome route taken by present-day charities.

The welfare state has made people feel that there’s something demeaning about personal charity. For decades now it has been seen as condescending, in the spirit of Lady Bountiful; indeed, until recently, in my observation, trustees in charities were often despised by the professional workers as overprivileged, incompetent do-gooders. But there’s an easy solution: anyone afraid of offending someone in need can send money anonymously via a solicitor, at minimal cost.

I write with considerable feeling and years of experience as a trustee of two charities, one big and one small. Many charities have admittedly been forced to become very professional and complicated because they provide difficult and complex services under heavy legal burdens and duties of care.

But there is something chilling about the professionalisation of fundraising, in which grant-giving foundations chase one another round and round conferences, lunches and events, weaving their way through the lottery, the quangos and the great and the good, and cutting out the small battalions.

Surely the big society does not mean big charity: it means small, personal charity and personal giving and fundraising. Otherwise, in the old-fashioned expression, it will be as cold as charity — as cold as contemporary charity may well become.