The cost of giving — how the government relies on charities to do the heavy lifting

Image courtesy of klimkin/Pixabay CC0

Dangling from a coat hanger or sprawled/donned on mannequin, a wedding dress is a common sight at the charity shop window. It almost begs the passers-by to stop and ponder about the story behind it. Why would someone abandon the dress that symbolises what is meant to be a day full of happy memories?

Not to mention how expensive these dresses can be. Something quite extraordinary must have happened for someone to give it away instead of selling it.

The truth is that nothing out of the ordinary need to have happened. The British just are very generous people. This little island is brimming with people who routinely donate their time and their money to help those less well-off. Children are brought up and being taught that charity work is important — and you might even get to meet the queen. Charitable organisations entice students with crazy challenges and trips abroad to hike up Machu Picchu or build playgrounds for children in Africa.

There are charities for everything you could think of, and their existence is very prominent in the everyday life. Walking along any shopping street, you can pass charity shops dedicated to the humanitarian aid, heart disease, wildlife — even retired greyhounds. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations the voluntary sector has an annual income of £43.8bn and employs roughly 827,000 paid workers. They contribute about £12,3bn to the UK economy, so it is no wonder that the government wants a slice of that pie.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in October in Birmingham, Dr Fabio Conti made these remarks during his short speech:

“Now, I don’t believe government has all the answers. So we must encourage voluntary organisations and charities to develop avenues of support that these people can be referred into.”

In other words, he wanted to pass on to charities what any well-functioning, modern government should be able to do: the job of taking care of those in need.

It seems that the words of this Ealing Conservative went largely unnoticed, with more prominent speakers like Jeremy Wright and Ruth Davidson taking the floor that day. However, Dr Conti isn’t alone with his ideas. He tied his suggestion into social prescribing: a holistic way at looking at healthcare which also the London Mayor Sadiq Khan is an advocate for, where doctors can refer patients to local, non-medical services. These organisations are broadly referred to as VCSEs, ie. voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations.

Social prescribing is a way to lift off the pressure from the overworked GPs, as estimates say that up to 20 per cent of patients consult their GPs in relation to primarily social problems. It is no wonder, then, that social prescribing has taken off in the UK in the recent years.

Reducing health inequalities is a goal many people can get behind, but it is a chilling thought that social prescribing relies so heavily on charitable organisations. Is the act of charitable giving so engrained in the British society that even the official government bodies now rely on that help?

Social prescribing scheme advises to consider the possible limits of volunteering schemes, such as the ability to provide training. The Social Value Act 2012 aims to encourage spending on social enterprises, but the third sector remains vulnerable to public sector spending cuts and continues to need donations from the public. With so many different charities competing from our attention, what a terrifying thought it is to be dependent on the generosity of ordinary citizens.


This is a bit of a rough thought process, still — have I completely missed the point of charitable giving or social prescribing in the UK? Do you have any book/podcast recommendations related to this topic? Let me know!