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The Dependency Narrative: And Why We Need To Challenge It


Two people seated close together. The hands of one individual embraces the hands of the other to indicate love and support.
Promoting Sustained Support

Recently at a grant funders meeting, I listened as trustees reviewed their grant-making policy. The Chair spoke out about the importance of avoiding a ‘culture of dependency’ among grant beneficiaries by limiting the number of times and amount an individual or charity should receive a grant.


“Which is fine when you’re talking about helping them purchase a washing machine", I ventured. “But where does that leave the young person you funded last year who was left brain-damaged after an accident and needs help with transport costs to attend a weekly therapy session? That need doesn’t disappear after the money has been used up. There are only a small handful of local funders they can apply to, and with every funder adopting this policy, they quickly run out of options. . .and support.”


In recent years, a pervasive narrative has woven itself into the fabric of our society: the so-called 'culture of dependency'. It suggests that by providing long-term assistance to those in need, we risk inadvertently nurturing a reliance on charity. This narrative has championed the shift towards 'enablement' – offering opportunities and short-term assistance instead of fostering alleged dependency. While on the surface, this proposition seems rational and in the best interest of charity beneficiaries - after all, don't many of us extol the virtues of making our own success and happiness in life - it does raise several pressing questions and concerns that merit closer scrutiny.


Not least that society doesn't present anything like a level playing field. Is it fair to condemn every person who doesn't naturally rise to the top by their own efforts as failures? Or to suggest that if society flicks them a coin once in a while, our collective conscience can be clear because, heh, we're helping them out of their hole aren't we?


The problem I see with this narrative is its underlying assumption that individuals are seeking hand-outs and fostering a dependency. In reality, I would argue, it is the societal structure that places some individuals in this precarious position in the first place, and then expects charities to bridge the gap. Further, over recent decades, charities themselves have become victims of the same narrative. How many times are we asked in our grant applications to claim that short-term funding will provide the necessary boost to longer term sustainability, either for our beneficiary group(s), or the charity itself? We are operating within a paradox where the approach intended to curb dependency is, in fact, nurturing it. Let’s dissect this further.


Nurturing a Dependency Narrative Against Charities

For many charitable organisations in the UK, funding comes with stringent timelines, usually spanning 1-3 years. While the expectation of delivering tangible outcomes within this period is reasonable, it overlooks the complexity of human lives and the intricate processes of rehabilitation and empowerment. It fails to recognise that for many, there are no quick fixes, no immediate resolutions to entrenched issues.


In our pursuit of fostering 'enablement', we must acknowledge the nuanced needs of individuals, where obtaining a job is merely a stepping stone in their journey towards stability. Continuity of support, beyond the initial stages of employment, is vital in ensuring these individuals not only find but retain a job, breaking the cycle of dependency that society is so keen to avoid.


Why The Dependency Narrative Fails Individuals

To illustrate this point, let's consider a real-life example.


Meet Sarah, a young woman grappling with mental health issues. Through the unwavering support of a local charity, she secures a job – a significant milestone in her journey towards independence. However, as we soon find out, landing a job is only half the battle won.

Sarah's battle is a daily one, with fluctuations in her mental health sometimes affecting her ability to maintain a consistent work performance. She thrives in a supportive work environment, one that understands her challenges and provides a framework for her to excel despite them.


But herein lies the crux of the issue: such supportive frameworks often require sustained support from charities, support that extends beyond the typical funding cycles.

Imagine if the charity could continue to work closely with Sarah and her employer, facilitating a nurturing workplace that caters to Sarah's unique needs, enabling her to hold onto her job and flourish in her role. This isn't just about Sarah keeping her job; it's about her reclaiming her life, and fostering a sense of self-worth and dignity.


Challenging the Dependency Narrative: And Why the Charity Sector Should Start Now

So, where do we go from here? The charity sector stands at the crossroads of societal change, with an onus to not only support but to advocate for a more holistic approach towards assisting individuals like Sarah. It's about fostering a dialogue that moves beyond the superficiality of 'dependency' and 'enablement' to explore the deeper layers of societal infrastructure and support mechanisms.


It is here that as a sector and not as individual charities, we need to emphasise the importance of sustainable funding, one that allows for a more nuanced and comprehensive approach to support. Such funding should permit charities the breathing space to implement programs that address the root causes of dependency, rather than just the symptoms.


Moreover, we must foster conversations with funders and policymakers about the intricate dance between supporting individuals to become self-reliant and acknowledging that ongoing support doesn't equate to fostering dependency. It's about creating a society where every individual, regardless of their circumstances, has the right to sustained support that allows them to lead fulfilling lives.


How the Charity Sector Can Champion a Different Narrative

Looking forwards, we have to challenge and then dismantle the kind of jingoistic narrative where terms like 'culture of dependency' are allowed to creep into and then twist our collective mindset. As a sector we need to push for a more thoughtful dialogue, one that recognises the need for sustained assistance, that doesn't just aim for short-term fixes but aims to transform lives in a meaningful, lasting way.


By shifting our focus towards nurturing comprehensive support systems, we can pave the way for a society that doesn't just promote independence but cherishes interdependence, fostering a community that is inclusive, empathetic, and just. It is time to redraw the lines, to construct a narrative that empowers every individual to thrive, not in spite of, but because of the support they receive from the society they belong to.


I strongly believe our charity sector can hold a pivotal role in the way we construct our society - to be the torch that illuminates the path to a future where the conversation is not about dependency, but about fostering a culture of unity, understanding, and sustained growth. But to do so, we need to show our strength as a collective, because we are so much stronger together, and we must campaign for a society that nurtures, rather than negates, the complex realities of the human experience.


Jenny Hopkins is the founder of The Boiling Frog. Having spent the earlier part of her career in publishing, she switched to the charity sector and became CEO of a local deaf charity. Over a period of ten years, she is credited with transforming it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. She has since stepped back from that role to embark on a PhD about the impact of marketisation on deaf charities, alongside mentoring other CEOs of small charities. She uses The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge her own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. She also volunteers as a trustee for two charities.

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