In 1993, the BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis caused a bit of a stir when he suggested television might feature more good news stories. Some agreed with him, but he’d ignored a basic fact of life: bad news sells.
Take the economy. UK plc’s slow grind through the recession has been so well documented that you might have missed recent figures that indicate the charity sector’s financial situation is improving. Furthermore, charities and social enterprises might have performed more resiliently than the private sector. According to the Charity Commission, sector income grew by £3bn in 2013. While these figures are boosted by growth from large organisations with incomes of more than £10m, pleasingly they show that the incomes of small and medium-sized charities also rose in 2013. Anecdotal news from social lenders seems to corroborate a turning of the tide as loan enquiries across the board are on the rise.
I have also been keen to understand how charities and social enterprises have fared through the recession. According to the Charity Commission, the sector’s income has grown annually by 4.4 per cent since 2009. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which strips out “non-charitable” organisations such as independent schools, reports that underlying income has risen by 5.2 per cent since 2008/09. These figures are interesting because they seem to fly in the face of received wisdom.
I suspect the overall picture is a consequence of the big changes that are afoot. Boundaries between the charity, public and private sectors are increasingly blurred, bringing new entrants into the sector. As government has continued to outsource services, many organisations have redefined their relationships, offsetting lost statutory grants with contract income.
Remarkably, the sector has increased its earned income by more than 90 per cent in the past decade, according to the NCVO, showing how radically organisations have overhauled their business models. This doesn’t surprise me – charity executives are resourceful and entrepreneurial. Sometimes chided for lacking focus, perhaps they have come into their own in difficult times. I’m not trying to downplay how difficult these times are for charities, but the perception of relentless cuts is not the whole picture. The fact is that resourceful and well-managed organisations have found a way to innovate and diversify throughout the recession.
Good leadership through difficult times gives confidence to funders and government and helps to debunk myths that persist about the sector’s management. Perhaps a closer inspection of the recession will put paid to that entrenched prejudice that voluntary sector managers are the poor cousins of the private sector; since 2008, the opposite might have been the case.
Franklin D Roosevelt famously said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And as Public Enemy once said: “Don’t believe the hype.”