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Radical chic charities

The madness of giving activist charities public money to oppose government policy

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Browsing LinkedIn is one way to stalk the lives of half-remembered university acquaintances. There’s the expected glut of management consultants, a mandatory career path for the well-heeled humanities grad. But, for every short-lived stab at a PR-traineeship or hard-won project manager title, there will be a graduate employed in the charity sector. 

Not everyone is motivated by money — I certainly wasn’t. For do-gooding types who preferred to spend their final year at rallies rather than “women-in-business” conferences, the charity sector might seem a rational choice. After all, jobs in the sector are quite different from the old stereotype of grannies working in charity shops on behalf of starving donkeys. 

The modern charity sinecure is unabashedly radical, and increasingly commands an immense amount of power and capital. Is it any wonder that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation sucks up top talent just as enthusiastically as McKinsey? 

Many of us have an old-fashioned way of thinking about charity. Pop your spare change in the little box and directly contribute to child welfare, or donkey rehabilitation, or mental health awareness. But as expected from any industry where money flows plentifully, the British charity sector is enormous. 

There are over 165,000 voluntary organisations, employing 950,000 workers (nearly two thirds as many as the NHS) and with a spend of £56.9 billion last year. This “third sector” is only moving upwards, having grown 27 per cent over the past decade. Eighty per cent of charities are classified as small, with a combined annual income of less than £100,000. Most are almost entirely unknown to the public. 

The belief that “activism doesn’t pay” no longer rings true. Take the medical charity, the Wellcome Trust, whose London museum recently shut its “Medicine Man” exhibition based upon the collection of its founder, for fear that it represented “a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”. 

Decisions of this kind are rarely made by impoverished curators with a grudge. For instance, the Wellcome Trust recently listed a job opening for a “Chief of Diversity and Inclusion” for a whopping £211,000. That’s £47,000 more than the Prime Minister earns. 

It’s no surprise that the government and the third sector appear to have an increasingly strained relationship. With the appointment of Lucy Frazer last month, the charity sector has seen the eighth secretary of state responsible for charity policy in just six years: an immense degree of ministerial churn. The lack of long-term leadership is especially concerning as accusations of political partisanship and bias are lobbed both by charity sector leaders and government officials. 

In 2014, the then Civil Society Minister, Brooks Newmark caused controversy by advising charities to stick “to their knitting” rather than engage in political activism. It is true that many charities don’t concern themselves with political issues. According to a University of Durham study, nearly three-quarters of voluntary organisations say they “steer well clear’” of politics. However, around half of charities asked said that they aren’t averse to campaigning if it will help their beneficiaries, with groups focused on gender and sex activism being particularly open to political engagement. 

The protestation that many charitable groups are functionally apolitical has been used by those concerned about prying eyes from within the Conservative party. Tony Chapman, a professor at St Chad’s College at Durham University and the report’s author, argued that “sustaining productive relationships between government and the third sector is much more important to ministers … than fussing about tweets”.

His views are shared by Orlando Fraser, the chair of the Charity Commission. Speaking in October last year, Fraser pointed out that “the law does not agree with those who say that charities should simply not dabble in politics at all”. Given that Fraser heads up the only officially-recognised regulatory body for the sector, it would seem that charities don’t share the Conservative party’s worries about their politicisation. 

Yet, last year an investigation by Conservative Way Forward exposed some extremely worrying practices. Its report, entitled “Defunding Politically Motivated Campaigns”, identified nearly £880m in public spending that backed charities involved in campaigns against government policies on migration, trans rights and the climate crisis: issues in which charitable groups were acting in direct contradiction to the wishes of voters. 

Heather Staff, an Islington Labour councillor who previously worked for an immigration advocacy charity, gave a clearer insight into why local governing bodies are so quick to jump into partnerships with charitable organisations. Speaking to Third Sector magazine, Staff described the financial and time constraints affecting councils, and how campaigns that supplement local services are far more likely to get attention than those waving a petition. 

Concerns about the exploitation of the charitable sector are not new: the 2014 Lobbying Act and the 2016 Charities Act were both introduced partly in response to criticism around taxpayer funding of certain groups. Government funding to charities comes through the medium of grants, and provides vital income streams to less public-facing groups. 

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) increasingly leans on charities to participate in public sector procurement practices. This often results in charitable organisations working alongside the civil service. This creates an issue: while the civil service is expected to strictly adhere to impartiality guidelines, legislation guiding charities is far less stringent.

Third sector opposition to the Government’s migration policy is partly driven by the anger some feel at not being sufficiently respected by elected politicians. Zoe Gardiner, who has worked for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, recalled the response to written evidence submitted during the 2021 committee stage of the Nationality and Borders Bill: “Everybody poured in mountains of evidence and when the government published the results they basically said: ‘All the respondents said we shouldn’t do this, but we are going to do it anyway’.”

Even if — as 40 Conservative backbench MPs requested of the Chancellor — taxpayer money was removed from Migrant Help, or Refugee Action, the phenomenon of the hyper-politicised charity would not end.

The account balances of Britain’s Big Foundations show the immensity of their wealth. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is worth £800m. The Barrow Cadbury Trust is worth around £80m; the Joseph Rowntree Foundation holds £428m, while the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation has an enviable £1.1bn. According to the Charity Excellence Framework, over 200 new grant-giving foundations were created in 2022 alone. 

At the “SW1 Forum” Substack, you’ll find dozens of investigations into groups of which few have heard of, but which seem to have a remarkable degree of influence over Westminster. One example raised is the case of British Future, a charity registered under the objective of promoting “equality and diversity” and which hosted a controversial Labour fringe event where the Labour MP, Rupa Huq, described Kwasi Kwarteng as “superficially black”. 

British Future perfectly encapsulates how the Charity Industrial Complex works: roughly 5 per cent of annual income is from donations, with the rest being gifted from familiar names like Sigrid Rausing Trust, Trust for London, Barrow Cadbury Trust, and Paul Hamlyn Trust. As SW1 Forum puts it, “organisations funded by large donors calling for more government money for other large donor organisations to dispense is hardly grassroots politics”.

British Future has a visible public profile, but many similarly-funded and politically contentious groups do not. We Belong was founded in 2019 by Chrisann Jarrett and Dami Makinde, both young women in their early twenties. The group was formed to campaign for the rights of young migrants “to create a strong counter-narrative to the UK’s hostile environment by advocating for reform within the UK’s immigration system”. 

The immediate success of the charity is staggering

The immediate success of the charity is staggering. Just one year after We Belong was set up, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation gifted the group £126,000 in unrestricted funding: WeBelong received a total of £265,997 annual income in their first financial report. The charity attracted high-profile trustees like Jamilla Comben-Brough, London’s Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement under Labour’s Sadiq Khan. 

And in their most recent annual report, the group brags about “our bi-weekly meetings with Home Office civil servants” and working alongside allies working on the Law Commission’s report into simplifying the immigration rules.

In spite of all this, the actual impact of We Belong’s campaigning for ordinary people seems to be minimal. In their 2020 report, the group reports one of their major achievements that year as being the creation of a campaign video that garnered just 6,000 views. Considering that We Belong has 5,000 followers on Twitter, and around 200 likes on their Facebook page, one might also assume that the vast majority of their annual funding is not coming from individual donations. 

According to We Belong’s 2021 filings, the group received funding from the John Ellerman Foundation, the National Lottery Community Fund, the Barrow Cadbury Trust, and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Kimberly Garande, an employee of the charity, has written about the group’s desire to remove “no recourse to public funds” conditions for migrants. The clause prevents arrivals from accessing most state benefits and services, including Universal Credit, child benefits and social housing, for the stated purpose that allowing migrants to become immediately burdensome on the British taxpayer would create incredibly perverse incentives within the labour force. 

What well-intentioned government officials may think of as common sense — that charity should be an independent, apolitical process focused primarily on supplementing the state — is not what the law mandates. As with so much bad legislative reforms, New Labour were the forerunners. In 2006, after years of secondary legislation, Tony Blair’s government redefined “charitable purposes” in the Charities Act to include the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution and reconciliation and the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity. 

David Cameron’s administration reaffirmed the reforms in 2011. Prior to these changes, a charity that sought to promote inclusivity would have to provide evidence that their activities promoted religion or education or gave some tangible benefit to the community. Essentially, the Conservative Party granted express permission for controversial organisations to benefit from charitable status: left-wing political goals suddenly became defined as non-political in the eye of the law. 

This, combined with the financial independence granted by the support from wealthy trusts, has allowed the charitable sector to become increasingly divorced from public opinion. 

What does this mean in practice? Or rather, in praxis? One example of a thriving charity that benefited from these reforms is Praxis. If you’ve spent much time around left-wing academics, you’ll be familiar with the term. Marx uses “praxis” to refer to the free, universal, creative activity through which man changes his historical world and himself. 

The charity affirms this connection, stating “our name comes from the Ancient Greek term praxis, which means turning theoretical knowledge into practical action. Throughout the centuries its concept has been enriched by philosophers like Marx, Gramsci, and Arendt.”

Praxis is a charity engaged in immigration activism. Its mission is to “deliver direct services: providing specialist legal advice and holistic welfare support to help people live securely and safely”. In practice, this means Praxis uses foundation money to push for changing the law so that asylum seekers with unprocessed claims can enter the job market and gain access to public money. 

It achieves this through a combination of direct community outreach and government lobbying (of course done in a way deemed compatible with charitable status). The group has campaigned against the “hostile environment” and celebrated the blocking of commercial flights meant to deport illegal immigrants to Rwanda. 

So far, so political. Not that this matters. Praxis is a particularly successful charitable organisation: last year they received over £2.3 milliom. Of this, more than £380,000 was from donations and legacies, and £1.99m from charitable activities. Of their total income, £599,334 comes from government contracts. This means the UK government provides around 30 per cent of their total income. So the British state is directly sending its taxpayers’ money to fund a charitable organisation to campaign against their Government’s immigration laws — and against what most of the electorate professes to support. 

The third sector’s pathological altruism has consequences

The third sector’s pathological altruism has consequences. Ernesto Elliott was due to be deported back to Jamaica in December 2020 after being convicted of knife crime. The charity industrial complex whirred into motion, immediately launching legal appeals to ensure the plane would not fly. 

The groups involved with campaigning include Migrants’ Rights Network, the Runnymede Trust, Detention Action and Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. They were supported by Labour MPs and dozens of high-profile journalists and celebrities. The then Home-Secretary, Priti Patel, complained, but Elliott never left Britain. The third sector had won. 

In June the following year, six months after he was supposed to have been removed from Britain, Elliott murdered a 35-year-old man in a row over drugs. He attacked his victim with a knife (fitting the criminal profile that had motivated the deportation attempt). Bella Sankey, the chief executive of Detention Action who spearheaded the successful campaign to keep Elliott in Britain, will face no culpability for endangering the lives of Britons by blocking attempts to remove a violent criminal. At the time of writing, not a single person from these charities has apologised for the deadly consequences of the campaign. 

The charitable sector’s political sympathies are becoming more radical. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), self-proclaimed advocates for the third sector, endured a damning report in 2021 which alleged to have found evidence of “bullying and harassment” on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, which left members of staff there “unsafe at work”. 

Dr Priya Singh, the chair, issued a statement agreeing the NCVO is “a structurally racist organisation … The same is true for sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and disablism.” Singh subsequently commissioned a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and staff remuneration committee. 

The Wellcome Trust commissioned the Bridge Group — another non-profit — to review its internal culture in 2015. Their review found that the Trust was insufficiently committed to Diversity and Inclusion. Wellcome responded by creating its Diversity and Inclusion group in 2017, which uncovered more incidents of discrimination while expanding the remit of their own department. It is thanks to the Bridge Group report that the Wellcome Trust felt compelled to offer a £211,000 annual salary for a DEI executive. 

In both cases, leading charities invited DEI scrutiny into the heart of their managing structures. The now-familiar mantras that “the personal is political” and “silence is violence” have created bottom-up pressure on campaign groups to bow to demands for explicit political engagement. A desire to be seen virtuous in all things has left the third sector incredibly vulnerable to the new cultural revolution, a parasitic dogma which is nearly impossible to remove. 

The Sheila McKetchnie Foundation, which describes itself as “part think tank, trainer, convener, and champion” for civil society, produced a report with the City of London promoting this direction of travel entitled “It’s All About Power”. The report acts as a guidebook and manifesto. Shadow networks of power are everywhere, the reader is informed. Civil society has a duty to “pursue deep, systemic change … Every social sector organisation needs the civil society it exists within to be healthy and free of unreasonable constraint.”

The report isn’t the only way in which the SMK Foundation has led the charge for charity sector radicalisation. It helped spearhead the founding of the Charity Reform Group (CRG) in February. Notable members include Halima Begum of the Runnymede Trust and Tim Naor Hilton of Refugee Action — both outspoken critics of the Conservative party. The CRG isn’t content to “wait for doors to reopen” (presumably after Labour returns to power) but has exhorted charity CEOs to wade into political debates with confidence. 

Sir Keir Starmer has already strengthened relationships between Labour — the natural party of quangos — and the third sector. While he has kept characteristically vague about the specifics, third sector leaders are seeking to shape the debate. Dan Corry, the chief executive of the civil-society-focused think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), has said that “splitting up DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) could prove to be a good thing for charities’ voice in government … the charities minister should really, of course, be in the Cabinet Office, as the true value of civil society is in how it can contribute across different policy areas”. 

In 1967 Rudi Dutschke, leader of the German extra-parliamentary opposition, debated the potential of the left-wing student protests to cause a revolutionary break in society. He told a journalist that “Revolution is not a short act, where something suddenly happens and then everything is different. It’s a long, complicated process, in which human beings must change.” 

This process, called the Long March Through the Institutions, called for the raising of political consciousness within organisations. A critically-thinking minority would then replicate the process to push the limits of discourse. The process need not be a conscious one, nor need it be explicitly Marxist. There is no better way to understand the way in which the “Civil Society” has metamorphosed. 

Attempts to reform the sector from the Right have broadly come to nothing. Conservatives have the reins of the Charity Commission — Orlando Fraser, the current chair, is the son of the Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser, and stood as a Conservative party candidate in 2005. Prior to him the chairman was William Shawcross and then Tina Stowell. But leaders can do only so much within an unbalanced legal framework. And by placing conservative voices at the head of industries that lean left, the Conservative party left itself open to accusations of “stoking a culture war”. 

The Charities Act (2011) is indisputably biased towards left-leaning organisations operating under the “promotion of equalities” clause. Migration Watch — a group that questions mass immigration as the cure for Britain’s ills — is a company limited by guarantee. The difference between it and a group such as Praxis is that they are allowed to be defined as “promoting racial harmony”, while Migration Watch is boxed in as a lobbying organisation. It’s my human rights campaign versus your culture war politics. 

Charitable trusts and foundations have a vested interest in steering clear of the limelight. A government survey suggests public support for charities as “essential” or “very important” has fallen from 76 per cent a decade ago to 56 per cent now. If the public perceives that hundreds of millions of pounds is being spent to frustrate the delivery of policy on the issues that they care about then trust is likely to slide further. Modern charity is far removed from Victorian philanthropy. It’s only a matter of time before this is more widely recognised. 

Successive Conservative-led governments have neglected the opportunities for reform in favour of fruitless antagonisation. The third sector is richer, more influential, and more ideological than ever. Forget “stick to knitting”. The charity activists are sharpening their needles.

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