Charities should be often seen and loudly heard.

Respected Times columnist, Libby Purves, took aim last week at the campaigning work of charities (see article (pay-wall)).  As did Chris Snowdon, a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), who wrote this piece in CITYA.M.

Both appear to share a romanticised view of charity in which charities would be better ‘seen and not heard.’  And through a soft-focus lens at that.

The trigger for this attention is that the campaigning work of charities will be encompassed within new legislation being introduced by the Government to codify lobbying generally.  And the charity sector is none too happy about some aspects of the new rules which would seem to be unworkable.

This morning I began to write a list of the campaigns I have been involved in over the last 20 years….disability equality, better mental health services, long-term care costs, the needs of carers…

Not all have been successful.  But some have resulted in social reform that has changed lives and society for the better.

Few of them would have got off the ground let alone got results without the support of charities.  When you hear the Secretary of State for Health spend his weekend calling on employers to change their attitudes to flexible working for carers it is worth remembering that his comments are not a knee-jerk reaction to a one-off event.  They actually follow many years of campaigning by organisations such as Carers UK with Governments of all political persuasions.

Government is only as good as its Opposition.  It is also only as good as the charity sector and others to which it must subject its ideas.  For only through this discourse between them can good policy be formed.

Charity lobbying has changed out of all recognition over the last two decades ago.  In the nineties it was not untypical for medium-sized charities to have one or two campaigns officers.  Nowadays these same charities have sizeable teams focusing on influencing what future public policy should look like.  Even smaller ones are likely to have someone with campaign responsibilities.

But so has the world around us changed.

When I started work in 1992 – as one of the much-maligned charity lobbyists we are hearing so much about today – the fax was the epitome of office technology and many MPs still got their news from a telex machine standing in the corridor.  Government and policy-making is more complex and intricate than ever before and will continue to be so whatever the politicians say.  Despite years of cost efficiency and trimming we still have more Government departments today than in 1992.  In our media, the test-card girl has been replaced by the 24/7 poster-child.

However, we should not under-estimate the strength of feeling and distaste people have – and I think Libby Purves does justice to in her column – about the tone, style and tactics employed by some charities in their fundraising, campaigning and communications.  My suspicion is that more often than not this lack of restraint, of proportionality, is a sign of a deeper disconnect with the public or even their intended beneficiaries.  Therein may lie and even more worrying tale.  Legislation won’t solve it.  Only donors and supporters who are willing to challenge Trustees and withdraw their support if appropriate answers are not forthcoming can.

For me, the challenge when it comes to the specific issue of campaigning as a legitimate activity of charities is the opposite to that set out by Libby Purves.   It also requires a different and more substantive response by charity leaders across the sector as opposed to what seem like the rather arbitrary requirements being proposed in legislation.  For it is about leadership as much as rules and regulations. It is about how to ensure the right relationship between Government and the charity sector.  It is about how to ensure we grow a sector that is committed to doing the right thing.

In the eighties changing Government thinking even at its margins felt like a war of attrition.  Then, successive Labour Governments decided to smother the voluntary sector with contracts and increasingly stultifying consultations.  Today, Government and some charitable organisations appear locked together in a marriage of convenience in which honesty would be the greatest betrayal of each-other’s lack of ambition. No wonder some people have come to the conclusion that the relationship between the state and charity is too close for comfort.

I want charities to be both seen and heard.  Loudly and often.  In fact I would like to believe that charities will always stand up and say ‘enough is enough’ when they need too.  That’s why I first came into the sector.  Perhaps I am just an incurable romantic.

5 thoughts on “Charities should be often seen and loudly heard.

  1. It’s a misrepresentation to say that I think charities should be seen and not heard. As should be clear from the headline down in that City AM article, I think the problem is *taxpayer-funded* lobbying. Charities that are funded entirely by voluntarily donations can campaign as loudly and persistently as they like as far as I’m concerned. Indeed, I’m on the NCVO’s side in opposing the lobbying bill and for the same reasons – it’s badly drafted and is a threat to free speech.

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    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry if I have misrepresented what you were saying in your article.
      Is it really a problem if charities who receive income through contracts or grants as well as donations are lobbying Government if they can show none of the former income is used for this purpose? For many in the charity sector one of the concerns has been that charities who have these sorts of contracts feel compelled to keep quiet on issues rather than speaking out.
      Best,
      Simon

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  2. Charities whose principle activity is campaigning shouldn’t be getting money from the state at all, IMO. Similarly, charities which get the majority of their money from the state should not be politically active. I agree that the issue is cloudier with charities that get large sums from both private and public sources, but accepting the principle that taxpayers should not have to fund campaigns for policies with which they may vociferously disagree would be a start.

    There’s a whole lot more to be said about this issue, including the implications for charities’ independence that you allude to. A fuller discussion is here: http://www.iea.org.uk/publications/research/sock-puppets-how-the-government-lobbies-itself-and-why.

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