What is charity? Some thoughts on the political economy of charity and Mohan and Breeze’s The Logic of Charity (2016)

George Hoare
5 min readApr 27, 2017

What is ‘charity’ in the UK today? Following New Labour’s outsourcing of public sector contracts to the ‘third’ sector (so-called as it is said to represent an alternative to the private market and the public state), we have seen David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and now Theresa May’s ‘Shared Society’. There seems to be something of a cross-party consensus that the charity sector has a significant role to play in modern British society.

There is a cluster of key questions here. What are the characteristics of this sector ? How does it operate? Can it work to redistributive wealth in society, as many progressives have hoped (and continue to hope)? One indispensable resource in addressing these questions is the data-rich NCVO Almanac, published yearly and giving an overview of the raw numbers and figures that define the sector (as far as the imperfect Charity Commission data allows). It offers key statistics for the more than 160,000 registered charities that compose the sector. John Mohan and Beth Breeze’s The Logic of Charity: Great Expectations in Hard Times (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2016, 128pp.) looks to explore in more depth the ways in which charities work. Written by two of the most prominent academics in the field — Mohan is the Director of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham while Breeze is the Director of the Centre of Philanthropy at the University of Kent — this book looks to place charitable activity in its context in contemporary British society. Mohan and Breeze also look to explore charity as an organizing principle in society, as counterposed to the ‘logic’ of government.

The origins of charity — and the welfare state

Mohan and Breeze start their analysis with a brief historical account of charity in a welfare state. Indeed, the existence of a functioning charity sector can only be understood in relation to the state, as well as the market. We learn that in 1948 98% of British citizens felt there was no ongoing role for philanthropy because the newly-won welfare state had made charity superfluous. As Mohan and Breeze correctly point out, the welfare state ‘is often depicted as the nationalization of charity, at least in relation to health, education and basic welfare’ (p. 5). The extreme of this view is to see the welfare state almost as ‘the great act of British generosity’. Mohan and Breeze report that 60 years later there is still no clear shared understanding of what charity means: kindness and generosity, or something for nothing; there is also no consensus whether it helps maintain solidarity in a complex and individualised society or whether it is a throwback to previous centuries when people depended for their survival on the whims of others.

There are two main sorts of explanation — according to Mohan and Breeze — for why the charity sector exists. On the one hand are theories of state and/or market failure: the sector steps in to solve problems that other sectors cannot or will not. On the other hand are theories of ‘comparative advantage’, which assert that charities are better placed than the state or the market to deliver goods or services, more responsive to demand, or better able to pioneer novel approaches to social problems (p. 15). As they explain, in neither case is there a necessary focus on areas of greatest need, nor any necessary redistributive consequences.

This is an important point in Mohan and Breeze’s argument; their focus is often on the redistributive mechanisms and tendencies of the charity sector compared to other ways of meeting needs socially. Mohan and Breeze compare the ‘organizing principles’ in government and charity in an interesting table. Government is associated with ‘systematic provision’ that is ‘obligatory’ (i.e. funded through taxation) and focused on ‘meeting basic human needs’. They also see government as ‘impersonal’ in that it delivers services to strangers through paid, professional staff. Charity, on the other hand, is ‘idiosyncratic’ (based on the provision of goods by uncoordinated donor efforts), funded by discretionary contributions and delivered by volunteers who have, or can build, relationships with clients.

Although there is much of value in this comparison, it ends up distorting Mohan and Breeze’s understanding of charity today, and to an extent their analysis throughout the book. They focus too much on individual donations and the consequences of this individual-level, consumerist behaviour. In reality, the charity sector receives only about half its total income through voluntary donations. The other half comes from trading activities, public sector contracts, and other sources, such as returns on investment. While the logic of individual donations, including legacies, is a constraint on the activities of charities, it cannot tell us the full story of the sector and in particular cannot cover the political import of the sector today. In short, we still lack a political economy of the charity sector in the UK today.

What might this political economy contain? There are two developments that are central to understanding the contemporary charity sector. The first is the changing pattern of inequality in the UK, the ‘1%-ification’ of society that Danny Dorling (among others) has documented. Who needs charity, and who is in a place to provide it — and more importantly, how is changing need related to changing patterns of super-wealth? The second is the decline of associative party politics (as detailed brilliantly by Peter Mair in Ruling the Void) and the simultaneous emptying out of many traditional civil society institutions. Changing patterns of church and party memberships across the second half of the twentieth and start of the twenty-first centuries mean that civil society looks very different than it once did. What role does volunteering play, and what possibilities for social change may have been displaced from parties to charitable organisations. Politically, we must investigate seriously whether the charity sector has played a role in the massive upwards transfer of wealth that we have seen under neoliberalism. How has policies of austerity used the concept of charity and the practices of charity sector to justify or smooth the process of state retrenchment. In other words, it seems unlikely that we can fully understand the ‘logic’ of charity without bringing in the ‘sector’ and putting acts of charity and activities of charitable organisations more fully in their political context.

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George Hoare

New book: 'The End of the End of History' (Zero, 2021). Other books include 'An Introduction to Antonio Gramsci ' (Bloomsbury).