Brian Lamb: Campaigning and influencing must always be at the top of the agenda

The chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board says charities should be focusing on how to effectively balance taking part in the government's big society and campaigning

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

Forget the abstract debate taking place about what the big society means for charities - there is a much more practical one going on about how charities should balance any opportunities to provide services that the big society brings with campaigning.

In a recent speech, Kevin Carey, chair of the RNIB, argued "that balance will have to shift radically away from campaigning towards supplying. Instead of seeing a problem and campaigning for somebody else to solve it, we need to solve it in parallel with a market analysis of how we can sell the solution."

A constructive alternative

Saul Alinsky, US President Barack Obama's favourite community campaigner, famously said: "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative."

Good campaigners know this. Carey is right to challenge organisations to think about where they stand in providing that alternative, but wrong if he thinks this should involve campaigning less.

Many parts of the voluntary sector do not exist in a marketplace where social needs simply translate into consumer demand. Social problems do not exist in the eyes of the government, commissioners and the public until they are defined and given shape, and solutions are proposed.

Without campaigning and advocacy, organisations lose their capacity to raise their profiles and influence spending decisions.

The next big issue

Consider the current debate around health-service provision: without charities campaigning now to raise the profile of the need for funding of services, money will dry up further downstream as governments and commissioners move on to the next big issue and public pressure to act dissipates.

Look at the founding objects of many of the biggest names in the voluntary sector and you will find, however quaintly expressed, the need for campaigning as well as amelioration. That's what they did to get their organisations and their issues established, both politically and through fundraising, before service money started to flow. It just wasn't called campaigning then.

The danger is that the sector starts to forget the foundations on which it is based. Sure, there might be market opportunities for charities to sell services and products direct to 'customers'. No one should have problems with a social enterprise model that also reinvests in the cause.

But let's also recognise that demand for many services depends on legislation fought for by the sector.

Think of the Equality Act and how that led to better access to services for disabled people and the provision of more services for disadvantaged groups.

As Kevin Curley, chief executive of Navca, has argued, charities are losing out on funding at local level because they are too reluctant to lobby local councillors, not because they have not got the solutions.

Organisations do need to align addressing need with service solutions, but campaigning needs to remain at heart of that challenge.

So yes, let's have more solutions - but just remember that, without campaigns and influencing, the world will not necessarily be listening to what you have to say.

Contact: Brian Lamb at

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