What will the charity sector look like in 2045?

2 May 17

Charities are facing rapid change at both global and local levels. How should they understand and respond to this?

The charity sector in the UK and developed world is vast. With 200,000 registered charities in the UK alone, society has developed an ever-growing dependence on the sector, especially as governments rely on them to deliver many social services. However, the charity sector is facing change, brought about by the pressures of the external world.

Rapid global and local change is affecting demography, technology and resources available to the charitable sector. Declining generosity, a shortening supply of volunteers, fundraising scandals and what is known as ‘celebrity humanitarianism’ are just a few of the concerns facing charities at a local level.

In addition to this, key ‘global drivers’ are affecting the way that charities work on an international scale. These local and global drivers have created a bleak picture for the future of the charity sector and this causes us to ask: what will the charity sector look like in the developed world in 2045?

Experts have identified four key drivers that are influencing, and will continue to influence the developed world’s charitable sector: trends in demography; changes in technology; the ability to source funds; and volunteers. These changes pose a number of questions for the future of the charitable sector: will commercialisation rather than compassion drive charitable operations? Will global technology crowd-out local service efforts? Will volunteers be available, or will demographic shifts radically reduce or increase volunteers’ availability?

It is not possible to predict one single future for the charity sector. Changes are complex and unpredictable and so a number of possibilities can be forecast, all of which will present the sector with severe challenges. Scenario planning, therefore, can help to address what the charity sector may look like one generation from now by suggesting multiple futures.

Futurologists have forecast various possible scenarios to aid future planning, based on the changes that are occurring today.

For example, changes to funding could lead to a scenario where charities become subject to marketisation and adopt market values by seeking commercial revenue. Forcing marketisation in this way is likely to divert the charity sector away from its compassionate mission, a move that could potentially put good quality services at risk.

There is also the possibility of a move towards corporate funding within the sector. Corporates want to look good through sponsorship of charities and to demonstrate that their staff are actively volunteering for a good cause while increasing their market share. However, relying on corporate revenue can be volatile as grants and donations are substituted for corporate support, thus driving charitable strategy further into corporate marketisation and away from a compassionate mission.

New technologies extend charities’ reach internationally and developing new models of resourcing could attract more supporters, but only for those with a mission that raises sympathy. Distance can also reduce charities’ accountability.

Another possible scenario is driven by changes in demography. The ageing population, increasingly healthy and with time on its hands, is likely to bring about a more inter-generational group of volunteers. This is particularly important as the charity sector is serving an increasingly diverse population with varying urgent social needs. There is, however, concern that this older population could hinder the process rather than helping, by seeing their volunteering as an exercise in socialising rather than assisting with charitable missions.

It seems as though the charity sector is at a crossroad between the present and the future, but understanding these possible futures will allow for more appropriate response to changes. This preparation can help to prepare for opportunity and risk, as well as helping to build public trust and confidence within the sector. Overall, it is hoped that reflection on these changes by both experts and wider society, will support the continuation of a more transparent, reliable and healthy charity sector that can thrive in the future.

This article draws on ideas in Carolyn Cordery’s article,'Future scenarios for the charity sector in 2045’ which can be found in Public Money and Management Vol 37 issue 3

CIPFA members can access Public Money and Management for free at www.cipfa.org/accesspmm

  • Rob Whiteman

    Chief executive of CIPFA since 2013, after leading the UK Border Agency and the Improvement & Development Agency. Previously, he was CEO at Barking and Dagenham council.

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