Here be dragons: charity deserts and the cartography of voluntary activity

Medieval cartographers dealt with incomplete information by marking their maps with the phrase “here be dragons”. Mapping charitable activity sometimes seems like that.

The Centre for Social Justice report, Social Solutions: enabling grassroots charities to tackle poverty, again repeats their argument that “charity deserts” exist, based on indicators of the distribution of registered charities in relation to population, and backed up in part by forthcoming @3rdsectorRC research. It also calls for a mapping of the wider UK social sector. Having had a fair bit of involvement in such exercises, I thought I would comment on some of the obstacles which researchers face here.

I don’t disagree with the CSJ’s argument that resources could be better targeted and that it would be useful to have better information on which to make decisions. I’m just not sure that I would use the ratio of charities to population as an indicator on which to base such decisions. David Kane has already pointed to some of the challenges and I’d like to add a few more reflections.

Think carefully about what it is you’re measuring and why. The number of organisations registered in an area is one thing, but in some cases there will be numerous organisations from outside an area operating within it. The mix of organisations will inevitably vary between communities, which might direct you to narrow your focus down to particular subsectors or types of organisation. You might also want to consider: flows of funds across regional or local boundaries, as in this work for the Northern Rock Foundation; aggregate patterns of charitable activity (e.g. total spending) in an area (though this will inevitably lump together apples and oranges); patterns of activity by charities that are entirely voluntary (that is, organisations that have no public funding and are run entirely by volunteers); and patterns of activity that can be specifically attributed to a particular locality (we have used geographical information here, to demonstrate that different sorts of charities operate, as we might expect, at very different geographical scales; see also David Clifford’s work on neighbourhood-level organisations).

If there’s a time dimension to a project, take account of the effects of regulatory change, such as increased financial thresholds for registration and reporting on the numbers of organisations on the register; there is the impact of regulatory differences on the pattern of charitable activity, even between constituent parts of the UK; and remember that some patterns of charitable activity are in fact not visible from regulatory data (you won’t find some of the largest flows of charitable funds in some regions of the country on the Charity Commission register). All of these will lead to substantial variations in the numbers and types of organisations that might be considered in mapping exercises.

If you aren’t using the Charity Commission register, consider also the nature and quality of the sources you are using. What you find depends on where you look, and in many British studies has led to results of doubtful value.

And I haven’t even mentioned thorny questions like whether or not you think all charities meet public benefit tests, submerged icebergs of “below-radar organisations”, the relationship between the pattern of charitable activity and other elements of the non-profit sector, and the need to map the public sector as part of the social sector as well.

More importantly, think about why we might be interested in these figures. To what extent is the number of charities in an area an answer to a question? Is it an end-point in itself or is it an index of something else altogether? In many ways those conceptual matters are far more important, since they will dictate the measurements we use and the uses to which we put them.

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