Don’t bite the hand that feeds you: it’s a well known phrase and few could argue that disagreeing with those that support you is ill-advised if you want that support to continue. It’s a power game all too familiar in the non-profit sector – those with their hands on the purse strings get to dictate what happens with their money; bite ‘em and you won’t see ‘em for dust.
A recent report from NCIA shows clearly the power government funding has over charities, creating a “climate of fear and muzzling of freedom of expression” as charities are told to keep quiet or lose contracts. Corporate funding has a similar affect. Some charities will tell you that their government and corporate donors do not influence what they do. They may also claim that being a registered charity does not restrict them from bringing about radical social change. This may be true in some cases, however it depends on the degree of change they’re seeking.
If you believe that engaging with the current system, talking to politicians and influencing policy is enough to create the world you’d like to live in, then go ahead, register as a charity, maybe even get some government funding. You won’t find too many obstacles in your way. But if you hope for something more – a world free of all poverty, inequality, injustice and environmental destruction, then a more fundamental change is needed, and that’s where the power holders start to feel a bit hot under the collar.
With massive increases in poverty, homelessness and inequality, it is understandable that people would choose to use what spare resources they have to provide for people’s basic needs. Of course we cannot leave people hungry on the street. But we also have to think ahead. We can go out and give a meal to someone who needs it, but the next day there they are again, dependent on someone else’s aid. In other words traditional charity can deal with the consequences of injustice, but it doesn’t get to the root of it.
Government funding is never free of control. The minute you present a real challenge to the agenda that continues to give more wealth and power to the rich and powerful, support will be withdrawn. The same could be said of protesting. It’s OK to protest in this country as long as you won’t win. As soon as you’re in with any chance of winning, the state will come down on you hard.
The very fear of this is what keeps groups that might otherwise dare to stand up to power playing by the rules. The same applies to registered charities: the Charity Commission will attempt to withdraw your status if you get too political. You have to play nice. This is one of the factors that has led to the ‘professionalisation’ of activism, where salaries from big brand charities and other organisations dilute people’s politics and often distance them from the grassroots.
But what has years of playing by the rules achieved? Attempting to reform an inherently unjust system has had very little positive impact on people who were already struggling on low incomes and are now increasingly faced with benefits cuts and reliant on food banks. It’s also breathtakingly obvious that whoever gets into power after May won’t be offering much better.
In 2014 there were many grassroots campaign successes, proving that change from the bottom up works. From the Focus E15 Mothers and the New Era Estate residents, who successfully challenged our corrupt housing system by highlighting current threats to social housing. To the many who stood up and fought for a living wage in their workplaces, including the cinema workers of Brixton’s Ritzy Cinema.
2014 was a year to be remembered, but this year we can do better! Let’s make 2015 the year of grassroots action and people determining their own futures. If you want to have a real impact with your donation, support groups that are free enough, bold enough and optimistic enough to think big.
Even if just 0.1% of the £64 billion that goes to registered charities every year went to small independent groups challenging the status quo and demanding radical social change, we’d stand a much better chance of creating a just and equal world that works for us all.