Have you ever had to bump start your car knowing that a few miles down the road you will run out of petrol? That is how the last few weeks have felt for me; the elation you feel as the car bursts into life gives way to the anxiety that at any minute you’ll be stranded once more.
When this crisis struck it was like collectively experiencing a flat battery. We turned the metaphoric key in the ignition to hear that ominous ‘click’. Nothing. Overnight income collapsed. Thankfully there were plenty of people around to put their shoulders to the bumper. With infrastructure all pushing in the same direction, we quickly gained momentum and were able to get things going. But we knew that there was insufficient fuel in the tank to sustain us and it wasn’t long before we experienced the splutters and jolts, the telltale signs we were running on empty.
Throughout March philanthropists and grantmakers did what they could to support the sector. But when you know your journey is long and your fuel is in short supply, however welcome the sight of those little green jerry cans is, it’s only the garage emerging on the horizon that finally settles your nerve.
Without wishing to overstretch my analogy, let me share a story. A few summers ago I was standing behind a woman in our local petrol station. Her card was declined. Despite multiple telephone calls she didn’t seem to be able to resolve her predicament. People in the queue were getting testy with her for holding up their day. She even offered to leave her engagement and wedding rings in the till as security against her purchase. But the garage owner had probably seen this many times before and lacked empathy or suggestions. I asked if she’d tell me how much she needed. It was just fifteen pounds; in the grand scheme of things, nothing!
I offered to pick up her bill. She’d no means to pay. She wasn’t local enough to get someone to pop along to pay for her. Some people scoffed at me and asked if I’d like to pay theirs too. The general assumption was that I was being a mug and I was about to lose my fifteen quid. She was so grateful. So relieved. She cried. We swapped addresses and I wished her well.
Right now the Government is that garage, and we are a fleet of emergency vehicles, all with limited fuel in the tank. Our journeys are long and essential. Only they can fund at the scale required to ensure we can continue to reach those relying on us. And 5ltr cans don’t cut it!
Sadly, like the woman at the garage we are struggling to prove that we are a worthy cause, that the money will not be wasted, that our journeys are essential.
The package of measures announced was extensive but insufficient and I’ve been struggling to strike the right note in pressing for more publicly. We’ve been no less vocal and active behind the scenes of course; trying to secure the equitable distribution of funds, amending schemes to be fit for purpose for charities, trying to calculate and evidence how much we need to keep us going until the next garage!
There remains an appetite for collaboration but the momentum has slowed. As we wrestle with how to navigate the next stage of our journey the needle is again moving dangerously close to empty. So where next?
We could accept government has done all it is prepared to do. However, we cannot rely on willing volunteers to push our proverbial car for the miles we have still to travel. Nor can we hope that grantmakers and philanthropists will emerge with their fuel cans in sufficient numbers, at the right points along the road, to keep us topped up and motoring. There are only so many hills we can freewheel down or passengers we can decant from our vehicles, to preserve resources. Sooner, or later, we are going to need that garage!
The problem is we haven’t convinced Government its assumptions about the sectors’ balance sheet, efficiency and effectiveness are wrong. That it’s in it and society’s best interests to invest in us. It gets business. Yet at the heart of government it seems the case for the value we generate or the long term benefit we generate for the economy (put at £200bn by the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane) is yet to be accepted. How else might we explain £750m for an entire sector (c170,000 organisations) versus Tesco receiving £585m in rate relief, whilst concurrently distributing £635m to shareholders and seeing sales increase by 30% during the crisis?
£585m for a single company. £750m for all of us.
If the inherent benefit to the economy is taken as read for big business why can the same not be said for charity? Government, having done so much for so many, is at a fork in the road. If it wants to ‘build back better’ different choices are required.
In my story, if a local businessman had been similarly stranded, the garage would have trusted him to return with payment because he is known and trusted as ‘good for it’. I know because I’ve seen it happen. But the woman in my story was not.
My trust was well-placed. £25 arrived in the post with a beautiful card and message. That extra tenner went to a charity. I was glad I acted. My humanity demanded it. I feel the same today; government needs to accept and trust that we’re essential to society and facilitate our role in building back better as partners – otherwise, there will be many citizens stranded on the proverbial highway in vehicles that have ground to a halt. For some that will be a fatal error of judgment.
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