Profit, poverty and public care: austerity’s charity work

Lord, Gemma (2019). Profit, poverty and public care: austerity’s charity work. Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 8(1) pp. 68–81.



The purpose of this paper is to explore empirically the dynamics by which austerity, a “moment” of neoliberal policy reform enacted through strategies of market-driven governance (MDG), provides the conditions for the insertion of capitalist-market logics into the charity sector. Demonstrating altered funding structures permits a political and socioeconomic reconfiguration of poverty, it asks what this means for charity work.

The paper draws upon data from 12 months ethnographic fieldwork in a charity in England. It explores the permeation of competition and profit as logics of capitalist-markets.

The paper finds that capitalist-market rationales are enacted within the organization. Charity is subordinated to business and profit permeates the site, thus changing the way that poverty is acted upon. In this context, workers are engaged in “labors of negotiation” which ultimately impede a reconfiguration of poverty into profit via their everyday situated labor. This reveals the symptomatic activities of upholding an ethos of public care in the production of charity work and within a context of MDG.

This paper makes an empirical contribution to the debate on contemporary charity working under austerity. It makes an important conceptual contribution by adding to the emerging literature on MDG (Varga, 2016); by repositioning du Gay’s (2003) analysis of public reform into alternative empirical and analytical conditions; and by building upon Adams’ (2013) work around the replacement of an ethos of public care with one of private profit.

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