Charities are being pushed to the brink by a lethal mix of council spending cuts, a decline in corporate support and a reluctance from the public to donate when their own incomes are falling.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) claims that local authorities are protecting their own staff and making cuts to voluntary organisations too hastily and without proper consultation. A website launched to track the impact of public sector spending restraint has logged £40m of cuts to 186 organisations in two weeks.
Lawyers representing 200 organisations in London have won a judicial review into council plans to cut £10m from their total £24m combined budgets on the grounds that the consultation process was flawed. The money from businesses and individuals that might plug the gap is also likely to fall over the next year.
Against this backdrop, Steve Moore, the head of the Big Society Network, warned charities yesterday that they had to up their game. Too many charities gave "bad feedback" to supporters, he said, and some even failed to say thank you.
"Local authorities are making cuts and they are really painful for these organisations," he said. "We need more people giving to charities, we need more rich people giving to charities, but charities need to improve their offer. Giving things to charity is not a particularly delightful experience. You don't get a very informed donor relationship. The problems that some charities face is that they haven't really caught up with the modern world."
Facebook and Twitter had made giving to charity something to share, not to be done anonymously. "Charities have to be brilliant on the internet. Part of the experience is people can see that you are giving. You give because other friends of yours have given."
A survey of private donations by the NCVO and the Charities Aid Foundation revealed that while the amount donated by individuals in 2009 rose slightly to £10.6bn, it remains well below pre-recession highs, and as public sector cuts lead to more job losses it is feared the generosity of the British public will slump.
Big business is also reassessing its giving culture, donating goods and staff time instead of cash. The top 20 corporate donors gave a mere £1.7bn to charity in 2009, just 2.8 per cent of their £60bn pre tax profits. Figures released so far for 2010 show that the this proportion has fallen still further.
Charities providing frontline services funded by councils caution that if they disappear it will create wider social problems. The Ivy Project, for example, which trains vulnerable unemployed teenagers in Devon and Cornwall has lost its £23,000 grant; and Hertfordshire Society for the Blind will lose its £7,500 grant for a home visiting service.
Nicola Carruthers, the chief executive of Thrive, which offers garden therapy for people with disabilities, said: "Care is only going to be for the high end, those who are very severely disabled. A lot of people with moderate disabilities will be sitting at home doing not very much and that is another time bomb. It's a false economy for the sake of a tiny investment.
"The British public are very generous and will continue to support their favourite charities, but others will suffer. It is a double whammy."
Stewart Mabere, 67, said his wife Denise, 61, has suffered from severe dementia for five years and spent one day a week at Thrive's gardens near Reading, until funding for the visit was cut by social services last week. "I have to do everything for her," he said. "She can't feed herself. Plus I have to look after the house and my 97-year-old mother. I don't have any life of my own. When she went to the gardens with a carer for six hours it was the only time I had on my own to go shopping and do chores."
The Big Society Network is hosting an event later this month called Give It Up, that will bring together researchers of philanthropic behaviour, social action groups and IT experts to debate how to develop a more generous culture.
Karl Wilding, NCVO's head of research, agreed that "social media can help us build a more engaged experience with our supporters", but he added that alone wasn't enough. "Charities still have to be integrated with offline relationships," he said.