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Disability sector embraces the market not the disabled

By Niall Crowley

Private-sectorisation’ is again the order of the day for many organisations in the community and voluntary sector. It is not a new phenomenon. Philanthropy offered an easy route into the community and voluntary sector for the private sector. Wealthy business people turned philanthropists never offered value-free funding. It came with management speak and metrics. Agendas, going forward.

One Foundation, for example, offered ‘venture philanthropy’ which transposes “the tools and methods used by venture capitalists – who invest in businesses for financial return – to the non-profit sector, where the return would be defined in terms of social impact”. Atlantic Philanthropies offered a funding model that involved “achieving a joint understanding of how success will be measured” and providing “technical assistance in such areas as communications, finance and organisational development”.

‘Private-sectorisation’ is now rampant in voluntary organisations providing services to people with disabilities. Ironically, it is a key part of the rehabilitation of a sector that had taken private-sector senior-management wage levels as an entitlement. First the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) bit the dust, then Rehab crumbled. The Charities Regulator was subsequently appointed to the unseemly relief of many in the sector.

Rehabilitation involves senior-management wages dropping, though remaining beyond any popular understanding of ‘enough’. Rehabilitation for the CRC also meant putting a businessman, two lawyers, two human-resource specialists, an accountant, an academic, a marketing expert, and an IT specialist on the Board.

Rehabilitation for Rehab was even more intensive. It involved creating a new Board of three former and one current chief-executive officers from the private and public sectors, two lawyers, one accountant, one medical professional, one businessman, a chartered surveyor, a development-aid specialist, a management consultant, a former disability-group trustee, a real-estate manager, an IT company executive, and a former public servant.

‘Private-sectorisation’ started with outsiders controlling the way their funds were spent but now the charity sector is itself adopting the ways of the private sector. Dóchas, Fundraising Ireland, Total Fundraising, the Wheel, and Whitebarn Consulting invested in a website last year, goodcharity.ie, to answer the question “What makes a charity good?”.

The website is directed to those wishing to make a donation or wanting to volunteer. They are advised to “make sure the organisation is legitimate and efficiently run. Is it transparent about its resources, both the people who run the organisation and its finances?’ Does it apply professional standards to its work, such as a governance code and the Statement of Guiding Principles for Fundraising?”.

It reassuringly asserts that charities “need the best leaders they can find’’ in answer to the question ‘are charity salaries too high?’. It establishes that “good charities publish their annual accounts and/or other financial information on their websites”. It offers links to material about  good governance, financial reporting, fundraising principles, cost and overheads, pay and benefits, and charity numbers. This is the essence of a ‘good charity’ in the land of ‘privatesectorisation’.

‘Private-sectorisation’ is, unsurprisingly, about market orientation. Its market is the donor or the volunteer. The priority is systems and standards that satisfy this market. It does not seem able to define its market as the people served by these organisations, people with disabilities in the instances cited. If it did, and pursued its own logic, it would be challenged to create a functional market by putting the funds directly in the hands of people with disabilities. This would allow them to choose which organisation and what services they want to avail of. This logic  of course will never be pursued, as it would threaten the survival of many ‘good charities’.

‘Private-sectorisation’ is about valuing private-sector skills and values. This means boards for organisations serving people with disabilities are selected without representation of people with disabilities or service users. Far from empowering people with disabilities by giving them control over the funds, ‘privatesectorisation’ does not even give them a voice in decision-making.

‘Private-sectorisation’ ensures these organisations are accountable to the donors and the general public. It seeks no accountability to the people they seek to serve. Good governance ends up as the test for ‘goodness’ – not empowerment and equality for people with disabilities.

‘Private-sectorisation’ is neat, tidy and systematic. Social change is messy, confused and even chaotic. People with disabilities need social change and ‘Privatesectorisation’ denies them this possibility. •