Since leaving the Charity Commission and NCVO respectively, and having been submerged by the public benefit debate over the past few years, it’s been a pleasant change not to have it at the forefront of our thinking. In fact, we’d made ourselves a promise not to mention it.
We know that, for most charities, demonstrating public benefit is just something they do and it’s pretty much second nature for them. The furore stoked up by the Independent Schools Council’s referral to the Tribunal has pretty much passed these charities by. They’ve simply been getting on with their day job.
But now the dust is beginning to settle on the public benefit judgement, and some wider issues are emerging. First, the judgement itself is bound to lead to further challenges. For all those commentators who have claimed it as a ‘victory’ for the independent schools, there will be lawyers offering pro-bono advice to the parents of school children at state schools to challenge whether their local prep or independent school is providing more than a ‘tokenistic’ public benefit to those unable to afford the fees. Expect the Commission to be kept busy on that front. Expect the person appointed to carry out the review of the 2006 Charities Act to be lobbied hard as well. Expect some headaches for politicians.
However, leaving that political hot potato aside, a broader notion of public benefit is becoming more common currency. For example, in recent days the Health Minister Earl Howe has said he is considering amending the NHS Bill to require Foundation Trusts to publish details of how their non-NHS earnings benefit NHS patients. (And NHS Foundation Trusts are already described as public benefit corporations.) ‘Public benefit’ also helped the university tuition fees legislation, with universities charging more than £6,000 now required to undertake measures to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply.
And, at a time when companies are polishing their social responsibility credentials and social enterprises are fashionable, charities should proclaim their public benefit more than ever. After all, public benefit is what makes charities special; it is why they deserve the support they get, from the public and the state. Tax relief to charities in the form of Gift Aid, rate relief, VAT and stamp duty relief was worth £2.56bn to the sector in 2010/11. There’s a lot of public benefit in that.
This post first appeared in Third Sector