Election Fever

There’s a bit of a ‘phoney war’ feeling in Britain at the moment. Whichever party (parties?) takes power after the general election that will be held some time before May 6th, the parlous state of the nation’s finances will demand a complete re-egineering of government. Yet we won’t know what our politicians have planned until they release their election manifestos, which is why interested groups of all kinds are issuing their own manifestos at the moment (as did we in January) in an effort to influence the policy wonks who are beavering away on the parties’ policy platforms. Will the politicians rise to the challenge of a serious debate about new ways of funding social change?

Today sees the launch of the New Philanthropy Capital’s ‘Manifesto for Social Impact’, which rightly highlights that a task for a new government is making sure that taxpayers and donors get more bangs for their buck when supporting charities. We would certainly endorse their view that the Government’s Office of the Third Sector (OTS) “has focused on helping charities to do more of what they already do, rather than to improve what they do.” Our view is that OTS has been so captured by its constituency that it should be scrapped (the OTS unsurprisingly disagreed), yet NPC see hope of reform by focusing its role more on building the capacity of charities to measure and report impact. Not only will this improve performance, they argue, it will also save money: by NPC’s calculations charities spend £600 million a year on reporting to government, which could be cut by a quarter if government created standardised frameworks rather than getting charities to produce their own measures. Creating better reporting frameworks would not just save money, NPC argue, but would also help to make philanthropy more effective like the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative in the United States.

The NPC manifesto is workmanlike rather than visionary but there are some useful practical ideas here. In contrast, the manifesto from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) is full of big talk but not a lot of substance. ‘We believe in the good society”, runs the title of this document, “What do you believe in?” Hmmm, all believers in a bad society please stand up. No one? OK, glad we have got that cleared up. So how do NCVO propose building this good society? Well they have some nice quotes from Winston Churchill, Helen Keller, Cicero, Gandalf etc, all telling us to be good and give (we made that last one up – you get the point) and exhortations that government should “focus on wider activities that promote individual and community well-being” and “offer an appropriate mix of funding”. Oh and a national community volunteering day.

The clear message from the NCVO manifesto is that voluntary sector is pretty happy with the status quo, having received some large dollops of government cash over the last twelve and a half years. Since the voluntary sector is more traditionally aligned with the Labour Party than the Conservatives, it is no surprise that there is some concern about what a Conservative government would actually do and a focus on defending gains rather than setting old new directions. (Although it does seem that Stephen Bubb, the head of NCVO’s great rival ACEVO, is happy to hobnob with anyone important – we hope the ACEVO manifesto is as amusing as his blog.)

So far, the Conservatives have done little to allay these fears, with few policy announcements on what they have planned for the voluntary sector apart from some vague words about smaller community groups being a good thing. True, they have some nice rhetoric about a ‘big society’ where citizens are empowered and give back but there’s precious little meat on this soundbite. Labour, by contrast, is stuck with steady-as-she-goes when it comes to what to do about charities. Why talk about reform and alienate a natural constituency?

Yet Britain needs a serious debate about how the voluntary sector, philanthropists and government can work together to save money and achieve real social impact. Philanthrocapitalism is not a party-political idea but new approaches to supporting social innovation need to be publicly debated. By shying away from a real discussion about how public and private capital can work together, the politicians are missing an opportunity to build a vision and consensus about how our society will tackle its most pressing problems. We can only hope that there will be some big, bold new ideas in their manifestos.