Monday, August 9, 2010

Big society, little cash?

Polly Toynbee scents a political point in the Guardian (online), laying into the Government for their proposed funding cuts to the "third sector". This is an interesting point, revealing a tension between the rhetoric of the "Big Society" and the reality of funding cuts.

Should charities, including churches, be worried? On one hand, there must be concern that the constraints on public funds will have an impact on charities working in areas of social need. Government grants that have been useful to all kinds of projects and charities over the past few years are fast drying up.

On the other hand, we need to remember that it's a bit misleading to speak about the Government "cutting" charities which, by definition, are independent bodies and not run by the state. If you look more carefully at Toynbee's article, you see that most of the cuts are in fact to Government-run volunteering agencies and other quangos dealing with the third sector. I suspect that this is as much about ideology as about finance, as the new Government shifts the emphasis away from large state-run agencies in all areas of public life.

Charities that have become heavily dependent on state funding will suffer badly in the next few years. But others that have more diverse income bases will be less affected by Government cuts. Of all charities, churches probably have the least to fear, as very few receive much government help, and most depend on private giving. A bigger challenge for the churches is how to encourage giving during a recession.

What's more interesting is the question of how the Big Society will affect the work of the churches in the community. Will local authorities start "contracting out" social care work to charities? If so, then the Christian church might expect to play a leading role. Or perhaps the more likely scenario is that as cuts bite, more and more people will be left outside the net of government-funded care. In this case, churches, with their ready-made pastoral care networks, are likely to find themselves playing a bigger role in caring for the vulnerable in their local communities by default - but it will be purely for love, not Government cash.

Watch this space.

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