How can charities help solve poverty?

This blog was first published in Civil Society on 6.9.16

In his 1904 Memorandum, businessman and philanthropist Joseph Rowntree noted with regret that: ‘The soup kitchen in York never has difficulty in obtaining adequate financial aid, but an enquiry into the extent and causes of poverty would enlist little support’. 

Today, over a century later, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has completed just such an inquiry and its landmark report is a sobering read. The sheer scale of its ambition – to provide a blueprint for solving poverty in the UK – is daunting. And yet its tone and message is pragmatic: poverty is real, its causes well-understood, its solutions identifiable and actionable. 

Most of the report’s recommendations focus on government and business. This makes sense given the systemic nature of the issues and solutions. Ensuring the social security system works effectively, creating better jobs, and building tens of thousands more homes for affordable rent. There is plenty for the new Prime Minister to consider, particularly in light of her personal commitment to ensuring a post-Brexit Britain works for everyone.

What does the report have to say about the role of charities and civil society?

Civil society organisations are called upon to make solving poverty an explicit goal. Poverty touches so many areas of our lives and community endeavour, it is not hard to imagine the sector mobilising around such a goal.

What more could our organisations each do solve poverty here in the UK? In some cases, it might prompt us to review services, operational or access arrangements; in others, it might be reason to take new risks, develop new services and partnerships. 

Could this also be fertile ground for consensus and collective action? It was of course under the banner of making poverty history that some of the biggest campaigning achievements of the last decade were achieved, relieving developing countries of their debts.

And with much government policy up for grabs post-Brexit, might there be a real opportunity to jointly push for fresh commitments on this issue? JRF certainly hopes others will share their ambition, including foundations and investors whom they will be meeting later this week.

Although the report’s goals are ambitious, the good news is that the actions needed to achieve them are not rocket science. Indeed, much progress has already been made – not least, raising the minimum wage and reducing pensioner poverty.

And many local initiatives are already taking root. In Leeds, JRF has worked with the council to embed ‘good growth’ in their strategic plans, use their purchasing power to create better jobs, and invest in training opportunities for young people.

Elsewhere, ‘Fairness Commissions’ have helped facilitate conversations between people experiencing poverty and those in power and led to change. Looking ahead, devolution offers a hook for renewed strategic conversations and greater investment in early intervention could contribute significantly to public service savings over time. 

Charities can play their part in all of this, not only as campaigners and service providers, but as employers themselves. Many of JRF’s recommendations focus on the quality of jobs on offer.

This is to some extent about pay – asking all employers to pay the Living Wage where they can – but also about increasing access to training and progression opportunities, additional benefits and flexible working where appropriate.

In our sector, this will sometimes necessitate tougher conversations with funders and commissioners about staffing – and thus, contract - costs.

But it is also about setting the right culture within our organisations: having developmental conversations with staff and volunteers at all levels and enabling people to share their skills with each other. Investing in people ought to be a strength in our sector, even in the context of funding pressures.

Finally - though this is by no means an exhaustive list - the JRF report is a useful example in itself of how charities and particularly foundations can engage meaningfully in policy debate.

Without sensationalising or use of hyperbole, the report makes a compelling case for action. It rests on a solid evidence base that has been scrutinised by many researchers and has involved people experiencing poverty during its development. The at-times eye-watering costs of its recommended actions - which charities are often well-advised to shy away from - are here justified by the eye-watering costs of inaction and identification of several credible policy options to help Treasury cover those costs. 

It serves, overall, as a welcome reminder that although charities continue to offer much-needed assistance in the form of soup kitchens or food banks, they can also be powerful advocates of systemic change – as Joseph Rowntree envisaged – when they decide to be and take action accordingly.