Charities: Mutiny on the lottery's bounty

There is growing pressure to let the people decide which charities should get the money. Kate Hilpern looks at the pros and cons
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the early days of the National Lottery, it was suggested that representatives equipped with clipboards should be employed to stand outside newsagents, ready to accost anyone purchasing a ticket. Their motive? To gauge public opinion on where the money raised should go. This would be of particular value, it was claimed, to the National Lottery Charities Board (NLCB). After all, although money raised by the lottery is distributed among a number of good causes, the portion awarded to charitable organisations has always generated the most intense public debate. This is not least because, in its first year alone, the board received five times as many grant applications as other boards, resulting in a mere one of every five applications being successful.

In fact, the clipboards never appeared. But the argument that the lottery should be more representative of the interests of its users has remained strong, gathering particular momentum since the election of New Labour. Even the NLCB itself has been forced to recognise how little the public has been involved in its methods.

In a recent survey of representatives of the voluntary sector and the public, the board discovered that only 3 per cent felt they knew a great deal about the types of grants made. In addition, it seems that Joe Public is unfamiliar with what kind of causes can be supported. For instance, while there was overwhelming support for the board's policy that funding should not replace support by statutory or government bodies, the NHS and schools were frequently cited as deserving funding.

However, according to Gerald Oppenheim, director of UK and corporate planning for the NLCB, results of surveys like this simply echo the board's original belief - that the public should not be in charge of serious decisions about awarding grants. "Each member of the public has extremely personal views about which charities should be supported," he says.

"So it's impossible to expect to be able to aggregate successfully and act upon the opinions of 50 to 60 million people. And when you consider that there are around 180,000 registered charities - and even more that aren't registered - it is unfair to expect the public to be familiar enough with them to make informed decisions about which ones deserve awards. In fact, when the public is asked which charities they think should be awarded the most funds, the four that usually top the list are those for cancer, children, guide dogs and lifeboats. But while charities like Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital are brilliant, they are already incredibly well endowed. It's only when you point out lesser known organisations dealing with issues like domestic violence and mental health that the public will say 'oh yes'."

The Charities Aid Foundation is sceptical of taking societal beliefs too seriously for other reasons. A spokesperson explains: "So many people are quoted in surveys as claiming charity should begin at home rather than abroad. Indeed, the announcement of the international grants programme by the NLCB was met with some disgraceful press comment. Yet when you examine which charities receive the most funding from public donations, it is usually the ones based overseas, such as Oxfam. Clearly. this issue shows that there is a huge difference between theory and practice."

But what about last month's public outrage over Refuge, Britain's only national 24-hour helpline for battered women, which was refused a grant? Doesn't the scandal caused by cases like that reveal how insensitive the NLCB is to general opinion?

"Not so," says Oppenheim. "One of the main reasons there was such opposition to that decision is because the media compared the loss of funding of Refuge with the success of an award for pigs. Of course, statements like that are going to make people think our decision-making is unfair, but the facts were incorrect. The successful grant was actually for an urban farm near Sheffield whose aim is to give disabled and disadvantaged children a taste of country life." In fact, some articles even omitted to point out that Refuge had already received a start-up grant of pounds 104,000 from the NLCB in the knowledge that it might not be renewed, to allow other charitable groups a chance of gaining funding.

Martin Wainwright, chairman of the Yorkshire and Humber regional advisory committee of the NLCB, however, claims that acting upon opinion surveys is not the only way in which the board can become more democratic, Rather, he believes that the best way to incorporate public beliefs is to pick people at random from the electoral roll - in the same way that they are selected for jury service - and have a lay representative on each of the board's local committees. To prevent complacency, there would be a time limit on the amount of time that any one person can serve, and, to prevent ignorance about the system, guidelines would be provided. Since a jury alone does not decide a trial but is instead only part of a sophisticated pattern, the problems cited by Oppenheim would certainly be decreased.

In any case, although Oppenheim is quick to stress that the average person may be unused to the vast world of charity, there is more to the board's decision-making process than just the types of organisations to be awarded. There is also the consideration of whether groups should be allowed to hold more than one grant at a time, as well as whether the maximum grant length should be three years. In its National Lottery Yearbook, the Directory for Social Change claims: "The provision of short-term funding to meet ongoing needs is inherently unsatisfactory and every alternative approach needs to be carefully considered."

Alasdair Buchan, publisher of the watchdog magazine Lottery Monitor, agrees that wider representation of communities would be a welcome addition to the NLCB's strategy. But he is quick to emphasise that the lottery boards for sports and arts already had structures for grant-making in place when the lottery was launched. The NLCB, on the other hand, was forced to start from scratch with no delegation allowed and, therefore, the creation of a totally democratic system would take time. Nevertheless, transformations are now starting to appear on the horizon, some which are largely a result of consultations with the public and voluntary sector. For example, the board is currently reviewing its assessment process and is piloting new assessment procedures as well as attempting to improve and clarify its application process. It has also promised to begin providing reasons for unsuccessful applications.

These are signs that the National Lottery is, at least, making steps in fulfilling its role as a "people's lottery".