The past four decades have been an era of rising expectations that charities can step in to address pressing social problems, but the environment in which they have operated has arguably not always been a conducive one. In an article for Charity Finance, covering the period since the early 1990s, John Mohan reviews some of the evidence.

As is often the case in this field, it is a mixed picture. Many familiar charity names were at the top of the ranking of charities by income at the beginning of this period and are still there today. There has been steady growth in the number of organisations, although relative to population that growth is now tailing off. Volunteering rates have flatlined, and likewise levels of charitable giving by individuals. At the same time, there have been changes in the income distribution of charities, with suggestions, not entirely backed up by evidence, that large organisations are squeezing out small ones. The character of the voluntary sector has changed too, with flatlining in volunteering coinciding with a rapid increase in the numbers of paid staff. Government funding has somewhat waxed and waned – peaking under the late Labour governments, but dropping back subsequently – albeit not as dramatically as some in the charity world anticipated. Recessionary effects have been severe, especially on the resources of organisations located in the most disadvantaged communities.

In what has therefore been a turbulent climate, charities have not been helped by what the historian Matthew Hilton characterised as “sticking the boot in” to charity. The constant carping about allegedly high salaries (look at private schools and hospitals if you really want to find these), reliance on of public funding, and legitimate attempts by charities to raise questions about unmet social needs are unhelpful, at a time when social tensions and social needs are on the rise.  

We are grateful to the editors of Charity Finance for permission to reproduce this article and the original can be found at: