Telling Charity Histories

The National Archives and the Pilgrim Trust launched Archives Revealed last month, a new programme of grant funding for organisations including charities to scope archiving projects and create new collections. So I thought I’d share some charity histories that I’ve found over the past few weeks.

Charity histories are important because they tell our stories in their own right, but they also tell our stories as part of the fabric of society – how do we fit into the grand narrative of the welfare state? How have we changed as society has changed? How do we respond to crises and opportunities in the communities we serve?

Our stories also tell us something about how we see ourselves. Some make use of extensive archives. Others present a particular face or image. They are written for a purpose; researchers should be alive to whether some bits are emphasised or downplayed, and how they exist in a wider context – the narrative of our collective sector.

We need more stories – big and small, national and local, from all types of organisations. There are all kinds of records in the back of filing cabinets, in people’s attics or buried in hard drives, waiting for someone with the time or motivation to go through them all. Archives, national or local, might be interested in your records (and researchers like me always are), or you might want to tell your own story. Charlotte Clements, Georgina Brewis and the Charity Finance Group have produced some great resources that can help you to both think about cataloguing and archiving, and to improve your record keeping overall – find them at Voluntary Sector Archives. The new funding from Archives Revealed could be the perfect opportunity to get started, if you’ve got the right project.

In the meantime, I’ve been searching out (mostly late 20th century) charity histories for a project, so I thought I’d share them here. I’ll keep updating the list as I find more, and do send me yours if I’ve missed it!

Action Aid Action Aid has a brief history on its website; it was founded in 1972 by businessman Cecil Jackson-Cole.
Addaction Addaction was set up in 1967 after Mollie Craven, who was caring for her son, wrote to the Guardian calling for people with lived experience to come together. The Guardian has the original letter, linked to here.
Carers UK Carers UK was founded as the National Council for the Single Woman and Her Dependents by Rev. Mary Webster in 1965.
Charity Finance Group CFG started in 1987 – here’s a timeline of its history and achievements.
Child Poverty Action Group CPAG has published a report by Pat Thane and Ruth Davidson about their 50 year history. They also have a timeline on their website, including images of archival material.
Crisis Crisis was started by Bill Shearman, a Conservative activist, who used his political connections to gain cross-party support for the campaign. The Crisis website has a full timeline of its history.
FPA The Family Planning Association (full disclosure – I’m a trustee) was set up in 1930. The website includes their history in two parts, and the organisation’s archives are in the Wellcome Trust.
Friends of the Earth Their first campaign involved dumping thousands of empties at Schweppes HQ. FoE’s website includes a 45 year timeline of the UK organisation.
Friends of the Earth Birmingham This local branch is running a project documenting its 40 year history, tweeting stories and archival material.
Greenpeace Greenpeace’s history includes the history of the global movement as well as the UK campaign, started in 1977.
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants JCWI was founded in 1967. Its 2016-17 annual report includes a celebration of its 50 year history.
Motor Neurone Disease Association Set up in 1979 by a group of people with lived experience of the disease. This PDF provides a brief history.
NACRO Crime and social justice charity NACRO celebrated its 50th birthday in 2016. Its website includes a timeline of its history.
Oxfam Oxfam has a timeline of its history since its beginnings in 1942.
Parkinson’s UK Parkinson’s UK was founded as the Parkinson’s Disease Society in 1969. It has a timeline of its history and research progress on its website.
Rethink Founded in 1970 as the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, Rethink’s website includes the original letter to the Times from John Pringle, who was living with the condition.
Runnymede Trust Runnymede Trust has an oral history project documenting its history in the context of the struggle for race equality between 1968-1988 (nb some links are broken)
Shelter Shelter, formed in 1965, has a dedicated mini-site celebrating its 50th birthday.
Stonewall Stonewall was set up in 1989 – there’s a history of the organisation and its place in the fight for LGBT equality.
Toynbee Hall Toynbee Hall was the original Settlement in the UK, established by Canon Samuel Barnett in 1884. Eleanor Sier (@trulynella) also shares archive finds on twitter.
Victim Support The first Victim Support scheme was set up in Bristol in 1974. The website provides a brief timeline.
Women’s Aid Established as the National Women’s Aid Federation in 1974. The website includes a timeline of its history.
Royal Voluntary Service RVS has an extensive archives project. It also tweets material at @RVSarchives.
Muslim Aid Muslim Aid was founded in 1985 by community leaders from 17 Islamic organisations in response to the humanitarian crisis in Africa. The website includes a brief overview of the organisation’s history.
Big Issue Foundation The Big Issue Foundation was founded by Gordon Roddick and John Bird in 1991, in response to concerns about increasing levels of rough sleeping. The website states: ‘The two believed that the key to solving the problem of homelessness lay in helping people to help themselves.’
Leonard Cheshire The disability charity was founded in 1948. Its mini-site, ‘Rewind’, features over 600 digitised items from its archive, focussing in particular on the history of its early ‘Cheshire Homes’.
Disabled Living This Manchester-based Charity was formed in 1897 as the Band of Kindness and Children’s Help Society, to encourage children to be kind to animals and in turn their fellow citizens. It evolved into a charity supported disabled children,
and now provides information, advice and support around aids, appliances and equipment for disabled people of all ages.

A blog for Alice on deepest darkest theory…

My pal Alice, campaign wizard and general all-round good sort, made the mistake a while ago of asking what my Master’s dissertation was about. So I sent it to her. And received some justifiably rude words back. Ever keen to minimize my impact, this is a (very long, but still shorter than my dissertation) blog specifically to try and explain my theory-heavy tome to her. I have blogged about strategic action fields and other ways of understanding the voluntary sector before, but this develops my thoughts on the theory further and hopefully gives you (Alice) an idea of why I’m so keen on theoretical frameworks in general, and how they affect how we talk about charities.

Why does theory matter?

First a quick bit on why I use a theoretical frame in the first place. As Alice already knows, there are different ways of looking at and understanding the world. Some people might see the world as just what’s in front of them; as researchers they might gather evidence and analyse it in ways that might be described as scientific, looking at the data and seeing what it tells them about an object of study or an intervention. Others might look at assumptions, meanings and structures that act alongside phenomena that affect and shape them, and the way we perceive them. So, the voluntary sector might be characterised by its nuts and bolts and shared attributes, or it might be explored as a set of shared meanings, power structures and other associational factors.

This starting belief about how the world works affects how you study it, what questions you ask about it and how you try to make sense of it. The central point is that theory matters because at the other end, what you produce says something about and has a bearing on real organisations and the people who work within them, because it shapes understandings, discourses and debates which in turn shape practice. The existential debates about voluntary sector independence and voice, whether we’re campaigning too much or too little, relationships with government and groups’ role in society over recent years are, in part, a product of theoretical debates about how we understand and make sense of the ‘sector’ and its place in the wider world.

This kind of work on the sector, even when it’s not the main focus, is fundamentally definitional; it sets the boundaries for what we understand and analyse as the sector. This, as Rob Macmillan says somewhere, is a political act. As such it is continuously influenced and influencing understandings, ideologies and spaces in society. So, say I take a nuts-and-bolts approach and define the sector as registered charities; there are inherent assumptions attached to such a definition – like the idea that legitimation comes from legal recognition, defined by the state; are unregistered organisations thus illegitimate? – that need to be examined, even before you get to that bit about most of ‘the sector’ being small and below the regulatory radar. That registered sector doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of the world either; it is continuously being shaped by external events, political decisions and policy initiatives, as well as by those individuals and organisations who lead and speak for it. And by academics who write about it.

Some definitional theories rely on shared characteristics and modes of operation that go beyond the nuts and bolts, including organisational features that are distinct from those of private sector firms or public sector bureaucracies. These tend to run a serious risk of presenting a normative picture of what a voluntary organisation should look like. For me this often fails to reflect what they do look like. Too often they appeal to an ideal type grounded in a mythical and highly static golden age, which removes understanding of organisations from the changing dynamics, agendas and flows of associational activity that create understanding. It doesn’t encourage us to think about why we think, for instance, voluntary organisations should have unpaid boards, not distribute profits, a basis in membership and be acting for the public good – these principles don’t just exist, they have been constructed over years into norms of practice. Likewise there is also a question (again raised by Rob) about the extent to which ‘distinction’ is really a thing, or whether it’s an idea or construction that organisations trade on for advantage. That’s not necessarily a negative thing at all, more a useful way of considering how organisations collectively define and present themselves, and to what end.

There are many, many branches of theory used to understand the voluntary sector and what happens within it. Words like hybridity, isomorphism and embeddedness pop up on a fairly regular basis in the literature. In the interests of not taking up all of Alice’s time, however, I’m going to talk about just one here – the one that I find most exciting, and which best reflects my own experience of the voluntary sector (or maybe different bits of sector) – Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam’s theory of strategic action fields.

What’s a strategic action field?

Lots of different institutional theorists use the idea of ‘fields’; they’re described in different ways, even called different things, but they’re basically an arena in which organisations, groups or other actors come together around different things like shared goals (like existing for the public good) and organisational behaviours (say, being not-for-profit). Theories like Fligstein and McAdam’s are designed to help understand both what a field looks like, and how change happens (or doesn’t) within it. Like all theories, it builds on other people’s work that’s gone before – in this case people like Bourdieu, Webber, Giddens and other neo-institutional theorists. I’m hoping I can build on it in turn.

There are some key building blocks to this theory which are important to understand before we start thinking about applying it. The field itself is a ‘social order’ or an organised space within our social world. It is made up of incumbents and challengers. An incumbent is an organisation or actor that essentially dominates the field – sets the rules and messages and understandings, and reproduces them too. They’re basically interested in preserving the stability of the field, and their own position. When there’s a crisis they’ll seek to find a message or solution that helps them maintain their position. A challenger is likely to have fewer resources, will contest messages or ways of working, and challenge an incumbent in order to better their own position. When there’s a crisis, skilled social actors might offer alternative messages and solutions that, if they’re accepted by other actors in the field, will help them to make gains. This doesn’t mean fields are always desperate battle grounds, and it also doesn’t exclude collaboration and cooperation (there’s a kind of spectrum of fields from hierarchical to cooperative) but contestation seems to be a fairly permanent fixture. Incidentally, as Alice is a campaigner, I think this can be particularly useful for analysing the dynamics in different campaigning fields. The shared language, (implicitly) agreed methods and dominant players versus those that challenge the predominant practices are pretty easy to identify, and even in coalition campaigning there are hierarchical dynamics, often driven by resources, at play. I think we quite naturally identify these and work out how to work with (or against) them to suit our own aims – this isn’t a bad or a cynical thing, although considering it critically might help us to consider whether there are other possibilities.

Crises happen for different reasons. There might be an exogenous shock – something that happens outside of the field, like a new government after an election or a big financial crisis – that destabilises the field, and can lead to big changes in the rules of the game. Lots of voluntary sector histories are hooked on these – the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ moment in the 1960s, Thatcher’s neoliberal experiment, New Labour orthodoxy of partnership in service delivery, then the era of austerity and, arguably, political delegitimisation of the voluntary sector. These are often related to activity in proximate fields (those nearby, with links to the field you’re looking at), and proximate state fields are particularly important. This tends to place policy and ideology rather at the centre of things – Alice will start to see why this appeals to me.

But changes to fields might also come from within; because there is constant contention and jostling for position, challenges can make a difference to internal hierarchies over time. I’m quite interested in how this process happens, and the extent to which it’s measurable. For instance, I think we’ve recently seen a number of shifts in rhetoric from charities themselves on charity campaigning – both in terms of how the ‘problem’ is framed and who’s ‘to blame’ – tied up with attitudes to and relationships with Government. As much as these are legitimate conversations themselves, I think they can also be seen as part of the contention within a field still trying to reassert its role in society, in the face of a state field that’s changed the rules of the game.

The last thing that’s important to note is fields can exist within organisations, as well as being something they inhabit. You can look at, for instance, a large charity as a series of nested, hierarchically organised fields. There will be the same incumbent/challenger hierarchy, the same sets of shared goals, understandings and rules of the game, and the same type of contention over these, as within a field of organisations. I find this really useful; too often I think we talk about organisations as just being one thing – a campaign organisation, service delivery organisation, a fundraising organisation – whereas this type of frame lets us look at the multiple roles an organisation has, and the conflict and contention inherent within that.

So it’s all pretty simple really, right? Well now let’s look at the problems with it.

Is there anything this theory can’t do?

Yes, I reckon so. But I also reckon we can borrow from some other theories, and maybe recast a couple of elements, to give us a solid basis for understanding and measuring change and development in the voluntary sector.

It can’t account for consensus

Or rather it can, but the emphasis is so much on contention that this sometimes gets lost. I think it would be good to draw the consensus and joint collaborative action  side of life more, because I don’t believe that improving one’s position over another group’s is really a sole, or even prime, motivator in lots of situations.

It can’t tell everyone’s story within the field (but it could…)

This is linked to the consensus issue; is it necessary that everyone must be grouped as a challenger or incumbent, or does that leave some people out? I think creating a third category – something like ‘passenger’ – for those organisations that clearly exist within the field but don’t either lead it in the sense of an incumbent, or challenge the agreed rules, might enable a more realistic picture. These organisations would still be engaged in reproducing the status quo, through following the rules, aims and ways of working agreed and promoted by the incumbents, but because of reasons of resources, or even just satisfaction, may not engage in contention. You couldn’t reasonably call them incumbents because they do not make the decisions that shape the field, but rather go along with them and work within them.

There’s a separate but linked issue here about outsiders. I am concerned – as I am with other theories – that the work involved in boundary setting (saying who’s inside or outside of the field) is problematic. In some ways setting boundaries is a pragmatic decision that has to be made and justified. What I’m more concerned about is an organisation’s ability to say ‘nope, not me’, and where that leaves them if they do. There are radical organisations engaging in what I would still identify as associative voluntary action, and indeed which are often identified in the historical literature as such, who explicitly site themselves as outside of any ‘voluntary sector’ field (check out #solidaritynotcharity on your social media platform of choice). So where does this place them? Does including them in the field, as I’d be tempted to do, co-opt or ignore their radical identity? I’ve seen raised elsewhere the issue of larger charities benefiting from associating themselves with the strengths of small local grass roots groups; I’m not wholly convinced by this line of argument, but it’s one that needs to be considered when thinking about defining the edges of a field.

Organisations are only in one field

The way the theory is written, and usually the way it is applied, is to look at organisations as inhabiting one field. Proximate fields are important, and have knock on effects in the field you’re choosing to look at, but the complexity of existing across multiple fields isn’t really explored, as far as I can see. It is, however, touched on in an article by Taylor, Rees and Damm on the Work Programme as a sub-field of the wider employment services field. Challengers came into this field and successfully changed the rules of the game, bringing a focus on generic employability services rather than specialist ones. Private sector organisations were ready and able to react to these new rules, and reaffirm their position. Voluntary sector organisations weren’t, because they had to consider their mission and the reputational risk inherent in moving away from specialist work with a defined client base. This is surely the result of those organisations existing across different fields – in the Work Programme field, employment services, but also their sector fields. I think the theory can allow for this but it doesn’t account for it. My proposal is to borrow one part of a theory put forward by academic David Billis – the ‘prime sector’ approach – which suggests organisations will have their root in a particular field, and will act or refer to that field’s rules (Billis isn’t into fields, I’m adapting it to my needs here). I think this is a moveable feast – an organisation might choose to position itself strongly in one field over another for its own gain – which also helps to explore how different bits of an organisation can act in different fields at once. This does make it sound quite complicated, but I think as a researcher you can choose which bit to focus on within that system. And I also think it reflects a reality for organisations that do span multiple fields, and are defined by actions, goals and frames, rather than static characteristics.

It doesn’t tell us what resources are important

There is a question about how the relative importance of different resources is assessed, because this makes a huge difference to how the field is structured, and how you can realistically make sense of it. In studies I’ve looked at, authors tend to maybe pick something like income or number of contracts, or sometimes position on a published list of ‘top 50 businesses’. They’re all valid (I think the last one has a dual function of acting as a measure for relative strength, but also determining or reinforcing that strength, and the associated behaviours for success), but I think there are more abstract resources like reputation, relationships, mass appeal, and so on. I think there’s also a need to consider how class, race, gender and other factors play into field hierarchies, potentially as forms of capital (or capital deficits), but I’ve not quite worked out how.

So, are you glad you asked? Are you exhausted? I sure am. I’m sure there are other criticisms that can be levelled, and other theories that offer elements of strength to build on further (I’ve got 3 more years to find all that out. Only 3 years…) But, dear Alice, these are the principle questions the dissertation asks. I’m 100% sure I’ll come up with new problems next week.

The Aves Report: the old debate on volunteering and public services

This month I have mostly been reading The Voluntary Worker in the Social Services, known as the Aves Report. It was named after Geraldine Aves who chaired the Committee on the nature of volunteering in this developing public sector field, set up in 1966 and reporting in 1968. If you’re an avid voluntary sector fan like me, you might have noticed this age-old debate has popped back into the narrative over the past month or so, prompted by a letter from NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington. Ill-disguised historian that I am, I thought it was a good time to think about what it looked like in the olden days. (It’s another long read – sorry.)

What was going on in the 1960s?

Aside from the Beatles and naughty spies and all that boring stuff, there was also a significant re-examination of the nature of social work, its organisation and the role of local government in providing it. Conversations about a multi-layered conception of social work, encompassing neighbourhood-level community work as well as case and group work, played out across reports, committees and organisations like the Younghusband Report on social workers’ roles and training (1959 – I’m cheating), Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s report Community Work and Social Change (1968) and the Seebohm Committee report on local authorities and allied personal social services (1968). This one recommended that local authorities start to take a much larger degree of responsibility for social services, proposing the creation of specific local government departments. Government was also experimenting with longish-term, community-based projects like the Urban Programme (1968) and the Community Development Project (1968) in poor neighbourhoods and areas where recent immigration had brought with it perceived changes and tensions in local places. Voluntary organisations and volunteers ran like a thread through these programmes and debates, and at the same time new voluntary organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG – 1965) and Shelter (1966) were being formed as the country ‘rediscovered’ poverty and thought they’d better do something about it.

The Aves report on the role of volunteers in personal social services at a point where there was a sense that things needed to change. As the report itself says:

Social services had become more comprehensive and more complex than ever before, and there was increasing realization of the part that they needed to play. The aims of the services were becoming more explicit; their limitations as well as their potentialities were more clearly realized… it had become apparent that only by the intelligent mobilization of every resource could society hope to realise its aspirations to meet a very wide range of human needs.

So what does it say about volunteers?

The report includes some great material on volunteer roles, frustrations, relationships with social workers and views on the support they got (or lack thereof). There’s a real sense of celebration of the role volunteers played, including their relative freedom compared to bureaucratic services, a perceived stronger focus on individuals and human needs, and the ability to offer continuity where an individual might encounter a wide range of different professionals. It is not without criticism; things like ‘’friendly’ visiting’ comes under fire where it exists without any real purpose and without adequate support from organisations, and there’s a powerful reflection from a disabled person who feels they are a ‘captive audience’, obliged to keep up conversation with their volunteer visitor. There is plenty in there, both good and bad, that will be familiar to anyone who’s volunteered or worked with volunteers.

There are also some key themes about the nature and role of volunteering in relation to the state, which is what I’m most interested in:

  • The report is absolutely clear that volunteers should not be used to replace services, and should not be expected to do jobs where normally somebody would be paid. Voluntary workers, it says, ‘should be seen as part of an overall social work plan, not as a stop-gap for lack of trained workers’. Volunteers should complement, expand and extend the work done by professional social workers and services. It isn’t prescriptive about what volunteers should and shouldn’t do, but does make a call for clearer policy and role definitions in different service areas.
  • The report doesn’t talk about prevention. Obviously it is written at a time where this is not really on the agenda in the way it is now, but nevertheless there is no question that the people receiving help from volunteers need that help. There is no idea of preventing people from needing to use services, but rather volunteers are described as reducing loneliness, providing an ‘outside world’ perspective to people in hospitals or other institutions, befriending, being a conduit for service-user involvement and so on.
  • The Committee talked to different government departments about their views on volunteering. Some departments were more engaged than others, but it generally found that there wasn’t a great understanding, and that departments would talk about volunteers and voluntary organisations interchangeably. The report recommends establishing a national volunteer ‘foundation’; Government took them up on this, setting up the national-level Volunteer Centre (and the Voluntary Services Unit too).
  • There’s a serious tension between public services recognising the potential value of volunteering as part of service delivery, and having the resources and skills to make it a reality, particularly at a time when belts were tightening. In the report’s words, ‘the feeling was that voluntary workers could be very useful of only we had time to cope with them.’ There is lots of discussion about potential solutions to this problem, but throughout there is a recognition that the only way to increase volunteering is to invest in roles and services for recruiting and supporting them.
  • Volunteer bureaux weren’t such a big thing at this time. Councils for Voluntary Service and Settlements were well-established and had important roles in recruiting and supporting volunteers, as did other service-focussed organisations, but there were only a handful of organisations dedicated to advising and advertising to people who wanted to volunteer. The report calls for a much more comprehensive network. Noting the reluctance of the general public to donate to cover admin costs, it argues this should be funded by local and/or national government, given they will reap the rewards of having local organisations in place to organise volunteer recruitment, training and management.

How does this match up with debates going on today?

Well, it’s a very different narrative. It’s the perception of the purpose of volunteering that’s important here; for Aves it is clearly about complementing and extending, whereas in much of Sir Stuart et al.’s writing it is about preventing recourse to the state – an idea with a much longer lineage. This isn’t all that surprising; Aves comes after 20 years of the state as prime deliverer (broadly speaking), whereas Stu’s speaking after 20 years of New Public Management (likewise). The policy and rhetorical environment is different, as is the dominant ideology. Sir Stuart criticises people who take an ‘ideological’ position against government cuts, but his own is far from ideologically neutral (and neither is that of Aves, or mine). It says something about how far the conversation has developed and how far these concepts have been normalised that this is being presented as an inevitable path (or even, however tongue-in-cheek, as the only thing standing between us and our new robot overlords). I think we need to view this much more critically, and be careful with how we frame things like what volunteers do, what service users want and need, and the social care crisis within the conversation – which after all is affecting lots of voluntary organisations, whose business models are becoming unsustainable or whose beneficiaries are losing the services they need. I also think we need to talk to people who’ve been at the hard end of this, because ‘more volunteering’ is never going to be a remedy to the social harm inflicted by recent policy.

It is nevertheless striking how much of what’s in the Aves report resonates today. In my personal experience being a volunteer and working with them, the complaints of 1968 are still often complaints today (although I have been privileged enough to always volunteer for fantastic organisations who support me exceptionally well). So are many descriptions of the value of volunteering, and both pieces make the point that volunteering carries costs. Etherington says ‘it is time for the sector to renew its commitment to volunteering’. I’m not sure the sector ever disavowed itself, but it is worth considering why some of the same battles are going on, what new ones are being fought, and how we can keep on fighting in the right places.

I’m still exploring some of these issues – would appreciate any challenges, contradictions or other comments!