The Government needs to make it easier for charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises to help people. So says the new Civil Society Minister, Rob Wilson, who also states that supporting charities and social enterprises to help tackle social problems is a key priority. But how do we properly understand the value that charities bring to society? Alex Glennie and Amy-Grace Whillans Welldrake from IPPR North are attempting to help us better understand the role of charity by providing clear evidence about how they are helping UK households.
Charities play a vital and varied role in all aspects of our national life, from promotion of the arts to campaigning for change, to the delivery of public services.
The size and variety of the charitable sector in the UK means that many of us have had contact with charity in a myriad of different ways at some point in our lives, whether as donors, service users or volunteers.
Over half of the UK population donate to charitable causes according to the CAF UK Giving Report; while 29 per cent of us volunteer at least once a month, and 44 per cent at least once a year. However, in recent years charities have come under increasing pressure, with demand for services steadily growing as charity income has fallen.
While there is good data from the Cabinet Office on the scale of the sector and the value of charitable giving, there is a much less comprehensive picture of the way in which we collectively use and benefit from the wide range of charities that exist.
Many individual charities set out in their annual reports their value to their target beneficiaries and overall measures of service efficiency and cost effectiveness. However if we want to build a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of the impact of charities on British society, it is important that we go beyond ‘supply-side’ perspectives and instead consider their value from the perspective of individual beneficiaries and their households.
Value of charity
The value of charity to different individuals will naturally vary greatly according to their circumstances. Different types of households will use voluntary organisations in very different ways depending upon their location, composition and income. In an effort to understand this variation, IPPR North and the Charities Aid Foundation carried out a new online poll and a number of case study interviews.
Findings from the poll of a representative sample of 2,070 adults are revealed in more detail in IPPR’s report, Charity Street.
Interestingly, the poll highlighted that there does not appear to be a direct linear relationship between higher income and reduced use of charitable services. Those with the highest recorded incomes (over £55,000) are more likely to use multiple charity services: an average of 3.9 used in the last 12 months, compared to 2.7 among those with the lowest incomes (less than £7,000). This suggests that factors other than income are more influential in driving charity use.
This trend is reflected in the report’s case studies where higher income households such as Alison’s (a police officer) gained significant social value from their use of multiple charities. Alison’s household reported receiving significant benefits from accessing charity and she stated that she valued her experiences with charities very highly as she felt charities had “made a real difference to our lives, as it’s helped my son become more active. I think I’d definitely seek out charities now. They’ve become a really important part of our lives.”
The poll also revealed that:
- Women are more likely to use charitable services than men, with 83 per cent having done so in the last 12 months, compared to 75 per cent for men.
- Different household types are also more likely to access charities than others, for example families with older children are most likely to have used a charitable service within the last 12 months (89 per cent), followed by older couples and lone parents (both at 84 per cent).
- These households are also most likely to value charity particularly highly, with 64 per cent of households with older children reporting that charities make a difference to their lives.
- A third of lone parents consider the charitable services that they receive as central to their lives, and say they would struggle without them.
The poll also highlighted the way in which different households are accessing a variety of charities. For example, lone parents are more likely to have visited a community centre run by a charity or voluntary organisation (33 per cent, versus 18 per cent overall).
In total, more than nine of every 10 households (93 per cent) have used at least one charitable service at some time in the past, with nearly four-fifths (79 per cent) having used a service in the last 12 months and half (51 per cent) in the last month.
Charities clearly play an important part in people’s lives, and charities are getting better at demonstrating their overall impact, and value for money. However, they rarely consider this from a household perspective and could do more to recognise and demonstrate their combined impact on different household types and the social value that this generates, which would allow them to target services more effectively.
Without compromising the independence of the sector, government and charities could also do more to ensure that they recognise the complementary nature of their activities and support one another to provide holistic support to households in different circumstances. This is likely to become increasingly important as more public services are delivered through a mix of government, private company and charity provision.
The use of ‘social value’ measurements developed in this study is a new and relatively untested field of inquiry which could improve our understanding the overall impact of charities on households, in combination with other service providers. It would, therefore, be fruitful for the approach to be used more widely and tested more rigorously.
Our research shows that charities can often be closer to people than many other government or commercial bodies, with charitable services permeating every aspect of everyday life. Despite this, it can sometimes be easy to forget the very real impact that charities have on peoples’ lives.
It is paramount that this value is recognised, not only by the general public but also by government in the policies it sets and the support it offers to the charitable sector in the years to come.