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Understanding the Role of Charity in Society

Unit(s) of assessment: Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management

Research theme: Safety and Security of Citizens and Society

School: School of Arts and Humanities


This academic research project aims to improve understanding of the role played by charity in society.

The last 40 years has seen the growth and expansion of the charity industries within cultural and political life to the point that there are now around 168,000 charities registered in England and Wales alone (more in Scotland and Northern Ireland). Within this period the definition of what ‘charity’ entails and how charity ought to be done has altered and evolved. Many charities appear to operate more like corporations than as the product of grassroots concerns: maximising revenues, investing capital on the stock market and marketing the opportunity for prospective donors to ‘feel good’ through financial giving as though it were a consumer product. Moreover, while some organisations continue to provide alms to the poor or simple immediate assistance to those in need as part of what might be considered more traditional charitable endeavours, many more have emerged under the banner of the alleviation of the destitution of the Global South, while more still have been established in recent decades to fulfil vital public welfare services that were previously carried out by the state. This project thus explores the evolution of these trends (and others). It traces and critically analyses the origins of our understanding of charity as ‘good cause’ through exploration of religious texts, literary prose, e.g. the works of Charles Dickens, and works of philosophical, political and economic thought. Primary research will also be undertaken in the form of qualitative semi-structured interviews with charity professionals working in the industry at the moment. This forms part of the project’s effort to better understand how the industry perceives itself and its role within society.

The project has been reviewed and ratified by the NTU Ethics Committee as being compliant with academic industry standards.

Addressing the Challenge

One of the major aims of this project is to improve public understanding of charity and charitable giving. It seeks to provide critical discussion of the discourses around charity. Finally, the project wants to work with charities and other stakeholders to improve the industry.


The Principal Investigator of this research is Dr Colin Alexander.

If you are a charity professional and are interested in participating in the project as an interviewee, please contact Colin for further information.

Making a Difference

The project expects to publish a monograph book on the subject of charity in society. This will be the project’s flagship output but there will be other smaller publications as well. The book will be written for a public audience and will hopefully be available (and priced) for regular public uptake. Beyond this, the project’s principal investigator will work with stakeholders within the charity industries to explain the findings of the research and to assist in the implementation of any changes that charities wish to make in lieu of the conclusions. More details around this will be made available as the project progresses.

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