Why? Why do they exist is a different question from why should they exist.
It’s easy to fall into the popularist political narrative of blaming the government for the inequalities in our society, and seeing charities as the solution. Nurses can’t feed their family, because the government isn’t paying them well enough, so charities exist to provide a foodbank. Cats and dogs are being abandoned, because the laws the government made aren’t strict enough, so charities exist to rehome the animals. There isn’t enough money spent on medical research, because the government chooses not to fund it, so charities exist to raise money to pay for the research.
I’m not trying to absolve the government of their role in creating a fairer society, nurses should be paid more and refugees should have a safe place to call home, and animals should be protected from cruelty. I’m simply pointing out that the rationale that follows this argument is that charities exist purely to plug the holes created by government policy. The logic goes that if the government did a better job of fixing the issues in our society then there would be no need for charities.
The thought experiment to test this hypothesis is this: “If you had the power to design the perfect world, would charities be part of it, or would your world have no need for charities?”
If your vision of a perfect world is one where every child has loving parents and never goes to bed hungry, and animals never experience cruelty, and old people never feel lonely, then your world probably has no need for charities. Everyone gets everything they need in other ways, perhaps from family or from the state.
In an imperfect, unfair world charities are a mechanism to help people get some of what they need. Of course having enough food to eat, somewhere safe to live, and all the other things that we need are vitally important. Charities might be providing those solutions where the state doesn’t but I would argue that if those problems can be solved in other ways then charities are not offering anything unique to society. If paying nurses more solves the problem of them being able to feed their families, or if better regulation drastically reduces cruelty towards animals, then even if those solutions aren’t in place at present the fact that those solutions are conceivable leads us to conclude that the charity sector doesn’t have a unique place in society.
So, what is it that charities offer that is unique to charities?
I think charities have a place in society aside from the political entanglement of wrestling with the state policy decisions that negatively affect people in unequal ways. I think charities offer more to society and to people than providing meals or rehoming cats. This is vitally important work, and I’m not suggesting charities should stop it, far from it. I’m suggesting that when charities focus on providing value to society only on this level it reinforces the narrative of charity only existing because of failings in other institutions. I think the charity sector is better than that. I think it has more to offer the world.
This is the charity sector’s identity crisis, if it thinks its role is to make society better by filling the gaps created by the government, rather than making society better by focusing on the things that only charities can do.
‘Charity’ as well as being a type of organisation defined in regulation, is also a mode of organising people within the civic space. There are three domains in our society; the state, the market and the cvic, and just as the state has modes of organising, such as laws, and the market has its modes of organising, such as supply and demand, the civic domain also has different ways of getting people to do things in groups (and that’s essentially what a society is; people acting in groups rather than individually).
Within the civic domain there are many modes of organising people, each with their own characteristics. Social movements, for example, are decentralised in nature. They don’t have any centralised coordinating function which means those involved are able to act as they choose under the banner of the movement. This can have benefits such as the speed at which people can get involved but it can also have negative consequences arising from people not understanding the nature of social movements and so expecting there to be so ‘someone in charge’ who is responsible for coordinating donations, etc.
Charities are another mode or way of organising people within the civic space. They are centralised and focused around a cause or issue. Charity offers people a sense of belonging, they bring people together by giving them something greater than themselves to contribute to, something that matters to them. Nothing in the state or market domains does this, it is uniquely within the realm of the civic. Churches are a different organising mode within the civic domain. They bring people together around beliefs and as those beliefs can include helping others, perhaps this is why there has historically been such a strong connection between churches and charities.
As new problems arise in society the civic domain is often quickest to respond, perhaps because it is closet to the people being affected. When the coronavirus pandemic started, and the government was focused on the crisis response of lockdown, it was charities that were noticing and responding to the issues people were facing (whilst also trying to deal with their own issues). In time, the market was able to respond by selling all kinds of different face masks, and the government response of schemes like furlough was rolled out, but it was charities that people turned to for help.
Our society will always be unfair, that’s the nature of a democratic society system, but the charity sector, and all of the charities within it, act as check and balance mechanisms to prevent our society from swaying too far in any one direction.
Charities provide far greater value to society by bringing people together to contribute towards a cause. That is why they should exist