Three cheers for small charities, and for the Centre for Social Justice

8 Dec

The nationalisation of many of our country’s most famous charities, and their consequent loss of the power of independent initiative as they decline into mere adjuncts of the central bureaucracy, is one of the saddest stories of our time.

What is one to do, if one becomes rich and wishes to turn philanthropist? For it is pointless to write cheques to these huge but lifeless organisations, nowadays funded by the state.

To this conundrum the Centre for Social Justice offers an answer. On Monday night it launched the CSJ Foundation, set up to support hundreds of small, grassroots charities, ten of which received awards.

There is something faintly incongruous about sitting down to a delightful dinner, in the lofty, pillared magnificence of St John’s Smith Square, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, in order to learn from elegant and prosperous people how to fight poverty.

But any sense of incongruity was forgotten as one heard the testimony of the small charities. I was sitting at the same table as Anna Smith, Chief Executive of One25, in Bristol, which was set up 26 years ago and provides a nightly van service for women trapped in street sex work: a cup of tea, somewhere safe to talk or to sleep.

Smith observed that many people wrongly imagine these street workers to be like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, leading an almost glamorous existence as they earn a bit of extra money.

In reality, these women are often homeless, often have mental health problems, are often addicted to drugs, are often raped and beaten up, often lose custody of their children, are ashamed of what has become of them and feel they are beyond any hope of escape.

As part of the award, the CSJ made a short film about One25 which, Smith said, “really encapsulates what we do”, so is useful in explaining this to people.

Doug Barrowman, of the CSJ Foundation, remarked in his speech that 85 per cent of charitable giving goes to only 4.4 per cent of charities by number.

How, he wondered, can a prospective donor, following in the footsteps of “the greats who came before, the likes of Carnegie, Cadbury and Peabody”, evaluate charities?

Tim Montgomerie, who in 2005 founded ConHome, the year before founded with Iain Duncan Smith and Philippa Stroud the CSJ, which has since worked to tackle the root causes of poverty, learning from the work done by hundreds of small charities and urging the government of the day to apply those lessons.

Duncan Smith spoke last. He said that “in every difficult area I found a charity that had solved the problem”, and went on: “We are here to change lives, not to observe them.”

The tone of politics is often rancorous. This event was not like that. In place of partisanship one saw a disinterested desire to help those least able to help themselves.

That is not a very newsworthy endeavour, but across the length and breadth of the kingdom, small charities are striving with slender means but with dedication and understanding to help those the state is too vast and insensitive to know how to help.