It’s hard to write your last article for CYP Now after a decade of writing for, reading and featuring in it. It’s just as hard writing about the end of our 81 year-old charity when the job we set out to achieve is not yet done.

When my professional ancestors started Children England, back in 1942, the nations’ children and families were experiencing the ravages, dangers and great personal sacrifices of war, the blitz, evacuation programmes, food rationing, and refugees seeking safety here every day. The collective of children’s charities that came together then, with grant funding from the Wartime Coalition government, aimed to galvanise the hopes and ideas in the Beveridge Report. The bleakness of their present moment told them only how important it was to work together to create a better future, or even just the hope of one, when peace came.

I’ve tried to imagine that founding context often during the last decade in which I became leader of the infrastructure charity they created. How vitally important to the national effort it must have felt to be a leader of a charity for children at the time, when everyone in the country was ‘doing their bit’ too.

Not only has being CEO of Children England brought the privilege of being a custodian of their founding purpose, but also the privilege of being a voice and support for the extended family of just under 100 brilliant children’s charities who are our members and elected trustees today.

You will recognize that sense of our charity’s roots during the emergence of the Welfare State in the work of the ChildFair State Inquiry over the last five years, this time led by the expertise and insights of young people from all over the country. Their work isn’t just cogent, feasible and principled policy work, it does exactly what the Beveridge Report did for a bruised, demoralized, grieving nation, by offering hope and light at the end of the tunnel.

Anyone who reads the Vision for a ChildFair State will have that feeling of hope and possibility. I owe a great debt of thanks to all our young leaders for giving me that sense of hope throughout the last five years. The future will be better because they are in it, and already growing into the young adults who can change our world, with a plan for how to do it.

No matter how positive their work has been for all of us, though, it just couldn’t make our charitable maths add up to survive the so-called cost of living crisis. It’s the back room business that nobody likes to surface publicly, especially not a purposeful, mission-driven charity. The boring stuff us Brits don’t like to talk about in polite company – the money, the contract value, the pensions, what you’re making or losing on your reserves, the leccy and legal bills, rent, insurance and payroll. Every organisation of any kind has been thrown into their own profound existential challenge that lives purely in numbers on spreadsheets and bank accounts. It terrifies me especially because both our government and opposition seem oblivious to the reality of how deeply it threatens the continued existence of so many thousands of organisations full of talent, passion, history and purpose.

Thanks to our sister infrastructure body, NCVO, we have a picture of what kind of numbers stare back at the nation’s charities in those quietly lethal spreadsheets. Forty five percent of charities delivering public services with state money have never had their full service costs covered in return for delivering them. In the last year, when CPI inflation was 8.7% the average contract fee uplift for charities was only 2.7%. Many have had no uplift at all. Any charity running community buildings, classrooms or homes, offering food and warmth to children and adults in desperate need of it, faced far higher than the 8.7% average price rise too. Ninety nine percent are now having to reduce their staffing and service offers because their costs are even less adequately covered than they were 2 years ago.

A whopping 87% of charities in NCVO’s survey are financially subsiding public service contracts; using their donation income (67%), and even more worryingly, their reserves (11%). In my long experience, reflected throughout our public policy work over the last decade, I am certain that charities know full well they’ve not been paid enough for a very long time. But their missions mean they don’t walk away when the numbers say they should. If they did walk away the children and families they care for could have been handed over to the private sector; or the service they ran would more simply have disappeared altogether. So they keep going and hope, somehow, to raise or recoup the difference after the contract is signed. It’s precisely because this has been going on for so long that the chickens of unsustainable price-driven competitive commissioning are now coming home to roost. All of which was bad enough, but now exacerbated by a sudden inflation crisis no-one seems willing to meet the full bill for, especially not the national government that made it quite so serious.

Unlike councils, who are also using their reserves to keep their children’s services going, or private firms (who have access to loan capital or private equity investors), when a charity runs out of reserves it simply has to shut. Immediately. Woe betide the public (or indeed private) bodies who then attempt to pick up and deliver the same services on the underfunded budgets that a charity was probably subsidising before they closed. Charity subsidy for delivering public duty is, and always was, a doomed, lose-lose, systemic risk to public services, whatever sector you belong to or whatever place on the political spectrum you lean towards. It has built into public accounting a false baseline for the true costs of delivering public services. That’s why Children England has been shouting about the dangers of it, and the whole corrosive charade of price-driven market competition in public services, for the whole of the last decade.

The tunnel today is dark, as it was when we started in 1942. Unlike that moment in time, however, there appears no government awareness or concern about what we stand to lose before we reach the tunnel’s end. This is an existential crisis for the nation’s children’s charities, and Children England’s whole purpose has been to call that out and offer better alternatives. We will do that right up to our closing day. But then we’ll become another loss on the balance sheet of charitable effort, and the sector I love will still face all the same threats, just without its umbrella body. Our job is still not done. The charities we were set up to represent will remain essential parts of their communities and their local public services for as long as they can, but at increasingly acute risk of succumbing to the same threat as that facing the children and families they work for. The cost of living. The cost of loving. The job of standing up for them is everyone’s.