Long-run changes in the distribution of charities in England and Wales

There’s a growing debate in UK third sector circles about spatial inequalities in the distribution of voluntary organisations and their resources. This has long historical roots – John Stuart Mill was making the point in the 1840s that “charity always does too much or too little. It lavishes its bounty in one place, and leaves people to starve in another”. Other historical examples include fivefold disparities in levels of access to hospital treatment prior to the NHS; the influential Wolfenden Committee of the 1970s commented extensively on community-level variations, unrelated to social need, in the distribution of organisations; while the Centre for Social Justice, the thinktank established by Iain Duncan-Smith, referred to “charity deserts” in several publications.

So far most studies have focussed on one point in time. In a paper written with Diarmuid McDonnell – presented at the ARNOVA conference, Austin – we use forty years of data from the Charity Commission for England and Wales to track the distribution of charitable organisations from 1971 – 2011. We link our statistics on charities to population and socioeconomic data from a project which has reaggregated population data to a consistent set of spatial units (there have been significant changes to local authority boundaries over time). These are the district-level local authorities as they existed from the 1974 local government reorganisation. The same project has also recalculated indicators of disadvantage  such as the Townsend Index of Deprivation, widely used since the early 1980s in a consistent way over time.

As a result we can draw a number of conclusions about the pattern of charitable organisations. Firstly, there has been considerable growth in both population and in the numbers of organisations, so that generally the ratio of charities to population has increased for all local authorities (some of this is due to a broadening of the criteria used to determine the eligibility of charities), though we can also identify some outliers, where that ratio has not increased.

Secondly,  the distribution has been relatively stable. In other words, areas that had larger numbers of charities, relative to population, in the early 1970s were in the same position 40 years later.

Thirdly, there is a strongly negative relationship between the distribution of charitable organisations and indicators of disadvantage. Thus, although it is the case that charities have been expected to take on more of a social welfare role over the period in question, we do not see a narrowing of the gap in the distribution of organisations. in fact the negative correlation between disadvantage and the charity: population ratio has strengthened over time, indicating greater inequality. The table below illustrates this:

Correlation matrix of charity density and Townsend Score, by census year Townsend Score
Charity density measure 1971 1981 1991 2001 2011 Overall
Local -.45*** -.54*** -.57*** -.60*** -.66*** -.59***
National -.22*** -.22*** -.16** -.18*** -.13* -.25***
Overseas -.13* -.16** -.18** -.18*** -.02 -.47***
Overall -.43*** -.49*** -.50*** -.53*** -.54*** -.55***

For the whole charity population, the negative correlation between charity density and deprivation has become stronger over time. This is largely driven by local charities – that is, those operating within a single local authority. There is, as we might expect, a less strong association for charities operating regionally or nationally with local measures of deprivation.

This connects to wider discussions about what charity can, and cannot, be expected to do. Plainly, because the distribution of charitable resources is closely related to levels of prosperity, we cannot expect convergence between areas without considerable support for the development of such organisations, including funding to help organisations become established and sustainable. More generally, there are emerging social scientific debates about the contribution that charitable organisations make to neighbourhood social outcomes. North American scholarship makes much of the wider contribution of a strong voluntary sector infrastructure to neighbourhood development and quality of life. Evidence such as this seems to suggest that it is the most prosperous areas which will benefit to the greatest extent.



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