There has been something amiss with charities in the UK, that has crept up on us for years though no one will talk out loud about it. If you are a frontline worker for a charity you will have started feeling uncomfortable some time ago when your CEO’s started referring to your once grass roots organisation as a ‘business’ and began running it as such, throwing in words such as ‘brand’, ‘customer’ and ‘targets’.
Actually scratch that. If, like me, you have been in the game long enough, you would have started getting uncomfortable when your charity first appointed a CEO.
People light up when you tell them you work for a charity because they are universally seen as caring, empathic organisations and all love the idea of doing something that makes a difference. I mean charities do such good work in the community, they must be amazing to work for right? Wrong. On both counts. But it hasn’t always been this way, and having been in the voluntary sector for fifteen years I have to start being honest and say that it is truly fucking awful and will only get worse.
Most charity workers will have some experience of their service being “put out to tender”, which is when it is literally auctioned out for different bodies to put in bids, usually going to whichever large national organisation will run it for the least amount of money and ‘rebrand’ it in their image. For the purpose of this we will call them charity corporations, because really that is exactly what they are.
Their CEO’s are usually people who have worked in business or revenue rather than a boots on the ground role and are unlikely to have even had the most basic of training in whatever issue the charity addresses. Their presence gentrifies grassroots work in the same way that the likes of Walmart and Starbucks do to the independent corner shops on the end of our street or the bodegas of New York. The consequences of this is that they strip back and homogenise the support that is offered instead of it being tailored and responsive to the community it exists in. Charity corporations don’t just short change the service users. They are increasingly exhausting to work for as well, as they often bring in less experienced or trained staff and reduce employee entitlements such as annual leave and wages.
Staff being told they are being made redundant due to more cuts or lack of funding are brutally dismissed, often because they are forced onto yearly fixed term contracts which seriously affects any pay they may be offered or the notice they will be given. Trying to find any form of alternative work in a similar field is a nightmare, particularly for those needing full time hours. It is now at the point where myself and colleagues immediately go into anxiety mode from January 1st wondering what will be happening to us in the next financial year. The people responsible for the decisions rarely give consideration to this, often leaving it to the last minute meaning there are no provisions put in place for a worst case scenario and staff stress levels hit an all time high.
But don’t think about taking time off sick as charity corporation HR departments are every bit as brutal as that of a competitive business and despite staggeringly cruel treatment of staff, many would rather just leave rather than taking their employers to task. Because charities are so nice of course, and if you do or say anything that puts them in a negative light you’ll find you drop in popularity faster than Aung San Suu Kyi while your manager waves a whistleblowing policy in your face.
It is drastically changing the face of some of our most vital voluntary and statutory agencies. Let’s take domestic abuse services for example, because domestic abuse will affect every part of someone’s life and a multi agency response is often required to support their recovery. Where refuges were once almost exclusively run by domestic abuse charities such as Women’s Aid, they are increasingly being taken over by large social housing companies interested primarily in their revenue, which can cause major barriers for victims needing to access refuge who have experienced financial abuse in their relationship and carry rent arrears from previous tenancies.
People experiencing domestic abuse will often also have a whole host of other compounding issues such as mental health, addiction, debt or immigration difficulties. If they have children they may also have social services involved. But thanks to a decade of Tory governance, those services have also been decimated and those in crisis have to compete with each other for increasingly scarce refuge spaces, with priority being given to the least complex applicant.
Last month it was reported that the number of female homicide victims has risen by 10%. And that’s just murder. Rape convictions have hit an all time low of 1.4% for reported assaults, but these statistics don’t even include the countless suicide attempts and drug/alcohol deaths being reported to me almost weekly now- yet we are still seeing announcements that domestic abuse services are closing or now offering a “more basic service”.
What we are telling people is that we will try and help you survive, but only if it is cost effective.
Charity corporations aren’t the only spectre looming over us at the moment. The funding situation has been turned into a gladiator arena, often with a dispassionate Police & Crime Commissioner sat at the helm making charities fight for increasingly small pots of money instead of allowing us to work together and giving us the thumbs up or down depending on which one will pander to their ego or public image accordingly. Police and Crime Commissioners are elected officials from political parties. We’ve had PCC’s who had previously been exposed for fiddling expenses still allowed to manage large pots of public money. Former spycop Andy Coles who, aged 32 at the time, groomed and manipulated a vulnerable 19 year old and other women into sexual relationships while infiltrating groups posing as a 24 year old activist. He was still allowed to take the £86,700 a year position as a Conservative candidate until public outcry forced him to resign. The other problem with PCC’s is that if you have suspicions about the way they are allocating funding, your bosses and unions won’t support you in pursuing this if they are affiliated to the same party, or if they are worried they will be excluded from the pot if you question their integrity.
It’s the same for those organisations receiving government funding who are essentially being blackmailed into compliance in order to keep receiving money. The Citizens Advice Bureau were recently accused of signing a Universal Credit gagging clause, preventing them criticising the introduction and policies around the benefit in order to receive a grant. The charity bosses have denied this after it came to light via a Freedom of Information request, but other organisations have reported similar tactics.
The politicians and the CEO’s who justify these over subscribed and watered down care packages have never had to sit down in front of a human being in need of them, look them in the eye and tell them that the therapy, housing, or safety measures they thought they would be getting will now no longer be offered due to cuts. I have and it’s fucking horrible. Telling someone their case will be closing with nothing in its place long before they are ready to be discharged is cruel and dangerous. You see the panic in their eyes as you try to hide the fear in yours. You dread their name being the next one you see in the paper. And it is this that is the real shame. Us workers will be as resilient as we can, but we cannot forgive what is happening to those who come to us for help.
Like those working frontline for the NHS we simply cannot keep being asked to do more with less and less resources and unfairly taking the force of the blow when tragedy strikes. Staying silent in the hope of being tossed a few crumbs is killing the people we pledged to support and leaving even the most passionate workers utterly disillusioned.