Collaborators: Fifty heart groups beat as one

The National Heart Forum can hit the media faster than its individual members.

The National Heart Forum is getting used to seeing its name in print. A report it published on misleading food labels was seized on by The Guardian for a front page story last month. In 2006, the forum hit the headlines when it succeeded in reversing an Ofcom decision not to consult the public about a possible ban on junk food advertising on television before 9pm.

It also sponsored an early day motion on the subject, supported by 142 MPs.

The forum is a membership body of 50 organisations, including some of the voluntary sector's biggest names, such as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Age Concern. Most of its work is done in partnership with members, and it sees its job as representing their views. But it is also learning the virtues of taking the initiative.

Tim Marsh, associate director of the forum, says it has the ability to take action that individual members cannot. One example is the legal move against Ofcom.

"Our members were pretty much fully behind us," he says. "But none of them had even considered the idea, and by the time they might have considered it the consultation would have been over. We can get agreement with our trustees much faster. We don't do anything that is not entirely evidence-based, but some of our members are more conservative and find it difficult to take that kind of action."

The forum is funded by a core grant from the Department of Health and membership subscriptions, and it believes this gives it greater freedom to pursue riskier ventures. Some members have the sensitivities of corporate and public donors to consider.

Its nimbleness was also a factor in the forum's decision to publish the report on food labelling. "We were well placed to do it, and it needed to be produced relatively quickly," says Marsh.

The forum accepts that some of its decisions, such as responding to consultations, cannot be vetted by all members beforehand.

"Sometimes it is not feasible to get full support for everything we do, so we always put in a caveat that we don't necessarily represent the views of our members," says Marsh. "We give our members the chance to opt out, which they hardly ever do. They often put in their own responses."

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