It turns out Britain is one of the most generous countries in the world

By Frank Young, Editorial Director, Civitas

Britain does many things very well that we don’t give ourselves credit for. We’re actually very good at science, our arts scene is much better than we think, and it turns out that we’re one of the most generous countries in the world for giving money to charity. That’s the surprising conclusion of a major new report on the state of ‘civil society’ published by Pro Bono Economics, the think tank chaired by ex-civil service chief, Lord Gus O’Donnell. Brits give more of their spare cash than almost any other nation.

When it comes to giving up our time, we’re also willing to step up: ‘Unleashing the Power of Civil Society’ tells us that over 16 million Brits are regularly giving up their time to support local good causes. This two-year investigation should make us sit up and think about the role of charity, rather than the bureaucracy of the state in tackling thorny social problems. The report rightly raises concerns over how much we really value charities and how much good work is done by organisations that are not part of the state or contracted out to big firms (often owned by not so generous foreign speculators). In this, it performs an important function. As a country, we endlessly measure economic output but rarely measure the value of people volunteering to do something to help out in their community. Too often our commentators know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

One area where volunteers continue to play an important role is in our schools. Britain has a long tradition of looking to parents to step in as volunteers in our schools, from sitting on the board of governors to reading with children who have fallen behind. Charities also provide help with breakfast clubs and after school activities, much needed in an era when parents are often working at full pelt. One such charity cited in the report provides 215,000 children with a nutritious breakfast each school day. Magic Breakfast has become a staple of the school morning in many schools, in many ways a sad reflection of family life in Britain. It is a charity that steps in where society breaks down. In 2020-21, volunteers provided 32,000 tutoring sessions through Action Tutoring, another charity helping out our school system and the beneficiary of thousands of well-meaning volunteers.

Every parent will be familiar with the PTA – a band of parents, still very often mums, getting to grips with raising funds and doing things to support school life. The modern twist is the parental WhatsApp group, where parents are roped in to help with a shift at the summer fayre or Christmas play. The role of parents as volunteers is often overlooked as a vital part of keeping our school system going. Theoretically at least, most schools are run by volunteer boards, a peculiarity among public services, but a vital way in which schools stay close to their communities and the parents who send their children to these schools. We would be unwise to see this unravel. Thought could be given to how we can recognise parents who help keep our schools running.

Parents have been volunteering to keep schools going for hundreds of years, but a new part of the state will soon emerge where charities should play an important role. The government is pressing ahead with plans for family hubs, a new type of children’s centre with a focus on parents and keeping couples together. The architects of these hubs imagined a space for charities to support parents, rather than a state-run clinic for poking its nose into family life. The report rightly raises the prospect of charities playing a big role in neighbourhood family hubs. Most advocates of stronger families see it as a way to push back the state. It would be unfortunate if the process of helping families stick together and do a better job of raising children led to more state. It’s a welcome sign that researchers at Pro Bono Economics recognise the valuable role of charities setting up shop inside family hubs, and something ministers shouldn’t ignore as they read this huge report that will soon land on their desk.

The report recommends that local councils, businesses and Whitehall should do much more to embrace the role of volunteers, through better data collection, champions across government and helping big earners to give more to good causes. ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’ is a useful and important reminder that what happens with our charities really matters and that civil society is every bit as important as the state. We shouldn’t be so quick to forget it.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’