Brian Lamb: Poorly targeted campaigns will only degrade levels of trust in the sector

Austerity will challenge fundamental assumptions about methods of campaigning, says the chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness board

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

Charity campaigning and advertising came in for a pounding from the Public Administration Select Committee hearing in January.

So critical were some of the comments by MPs on the committee that the chief executives body Acevo called for a meeting to put the record straight. So what caused all the fuss?

The accusations were that charities campaign while not providing services, spend too much on advertising, bombard MPs with pro forma emails and cross the line into overtly political campaigning. But are their concerns justified?

The rules are simple: charities have to assess the best way to achieve their mission. If this is through campaigning, then that's what they should do. Solving the causes of homelessness is as valid as providing homeless shelters. But the Charity Commission says campaigning cannot become the dominant activity for more than a short period of time, and that charities can engage in political activity - challenging legislation, for example - but not party political activity.

Charities also have to show the means they use are effective in achieving their mission. So expenditure on campaigning, advertising or service provision is justified by results.

If the big society and the provision of services mean anything, they must be about campaigning. If we can stop problems occurring upstream it will release money, resources and energy for the issues that require service intervention. Moreover, when asked, the public overwhelmingly support charities' campaigning activities.

Some committee members sniffed at the idea of organisations that only provided advice, seemingly oblivious to the idea that giving someone a fish feeds them for a day while teaching them to fish feeds them for life.

But it's also time to recognise the hard truth that voluntary sector campaigning has enjoyed a fair wind in recent years. Rising government expenditure and corporate support has meant some of the old skills of influencing have been forgotten.

Austerity will challenge fundamental assumptions about methods of campaigning. Poorly targeted campaigns and pro forma approaches are in danger of eroding the high level of trust that charities still have among MPs and opinion formers.

We need to ensure that professional standards of campaigning are maintained and the sector, in the face of criticism and misunderstanding, needs to make the case that campaigning is still central to a good society. Brian Lamb is the author of The Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing Brian Lamb is chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

FACT FILE - Anger over advertising

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chief executive of Marie Curie Cancer Care, gave oral evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee on 18 January.

Seven MPs, chaired by Bernard Jenkin, questioned them on funding the voluntary sector but spent much of the session probing the cost and value of charity campaigning.

Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover and Deal, said he was concerned about "campaigning charities", commenting that Shelter didn't provide any shelter and the NSPCC and Barnardo's appeared to give greater importance to advertising campaigns than to children's accommodation. Hughes-Hallett said he had "real concerns" about the advertising spend of large charities.

In a Third Sector poll in February, 59 per cent of respondents agreed big charities overspend on advertising.

Brian Lamb is chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness board

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