Challenges facing the third sector

Rachel Swain, Editorial manager
September, 2019

The third sector exists to do good, but it also has its fair share of challenges. Two leading charities talk us through current issues facing the sector and how graduates can help


There's worry that the UK's departure from the European Union (EU) will result in the loss of EU funding and European staff. There are also concerns that other political issues may fall off the agenda and become harder to campaign for as Brexit takes up all the political attention.

'The media and the world of politics have become consumed by Brexit. So the space available, in our case, to raise serious issues on human rights - such as Yemen, the plight of refugees or same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland - is seriously limited. It has become Groundhog Day,' explains Niall Couper, head of media, PR and supporter communications at Amnesty International UK.

Then there is the financial impact on charities that Brexit is having points out Niall. 'The level of uncertainty has, unsurprisingly, made people very nervous about their own financial wellbeing and that has a big effect on our fundraisers. We're having to work really hard just to stand still.'

In order to overcome these challenges charities have to be innovative and not rely purely on what has been worked on before. Any new ideas that graduates can bring to the table will help them stand out when applying for jobs in the charity sector.

Lobbying Act

Charities have to abide by lots of legislation to ensure that they are operating correctly and fairly, but it is the Lobbying Act that is one of the biggest challenges facing the third sector, says Niall. Originally designed to stop lobbying companies exercising undue influence over politicians by restricting their spending, it has now been extended to include charities.

This means that if charities wish to campaign on any UK-based issue they have to be wary about whether any politician might deem it to be influencing the political agenda ahead of an election. If they do then the charity has to record all of its costs.

The Act can only be enforced seven months before any election. But as it includes council, mayoral, European and general elections, there are very few months in any given year that are exempt. So what does this actually mean for charities?

'For organisations like Amnesty, it is an inconvenience and obviously plays on our minds whenever we want to work on a topic (although for some it has also hardened their resolve). But for smaller charities it has proven to be a massive burden - effectively hamstringing numerous local campaigning organisations,' says Niall.

The charity sector really needs graduates' help in supporting these smaller charities in whatever way possible. 'They need their talent and dedication more than ever before. And they need their voices. Otherwise the harsh reality is that we may lose the campaigning zeal that communities across the country need now more than ever,' says Niall.

Being ethical

Charities, correctly, remain under intense public scrutiny for their ethics and how they deliver their charitable purpose. Perhaps, more so than ever before. And it's this that Brett Terry, director of people at the NSPCC, thinks is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector.

'A charity's accountability to its patrons and beneficiaries is rightly being challenged more frequently and scrutinised more closely than ever,' he explains. 'Being under the media microscope means that charities need to get better at communicating their expenditure, strategies, impact and ethics to grow public understanding and instil confidence, showing that they are using funds in the best way to support the people on whose behalf they operate.'

He believes the charity code of ethics, currently under consultation across the sector, will go a long way to codify all the good, industrious work that charities already do.

Brett also believes that charities need to operate effectively, maximising their charitable purpose. He feels that some still express surprise that charities are run in a business-like way, viewing this as wrong and distasteful. 'While charities are not corporate businesses - they are set up to do good and not to make profit - they have to function professionally and efficiently or they would not be using public money wisely, would not be sustainable and would be letting down the vulnerable people they support,' says Brett.

There are always things that can and must be improved. 'All employees and volunteers, including graduates, can and should question processes and contribute to charities striving to be as proficient and ethically driven as possible,' explains Brett. 'Self-scrutiny and continual improvement are essential components of our organisational ethos. Evidence indicates that young people are inclined to work for, volunteer for or support organisations that make a meaningful and sustainable difference to people's lives. It's not about what organisations do but they how they go about it that matters.'

'Relevance, transparency, impact and accountability are vital in helping charities to run effectively. The sector needs, now more than ever, to continue to come together to tackle the common misunderstandings about the way charities work and better develop strategies to build public confidence.'

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