Communications: Are you being heard? Part Five - MPs on message

Charities are doing more than ever before, but do politicians really understand them? Tash Shifrin finds out.

It's a strange thing: charities must be as popular with politicians now as they have ever been, but no one really knows how much MPs know about the modern voluntary sector.

Despite support from all sides of the political spectrum for greater voluntary sector involvement in delivering public services, it is not clear how well backbench MPs really understand the sheer size, scope and professionalism of the sector.

Yet these MPs are the people who will soon debate the Charities Bill: the biggest shake-up of charity law and regulation for 400 years.

Joe Saxton, director of think tank nfpSynergy, admits that although research has highlighted the public's misconceptions - and the need to better explain fundraising and administration costs - there has been little recent research into MPs' knowledge of the sector.

"We've done an awful lot of work to see if the public understands charities - and by and large it doesn't," he says. "The next task is to see whether MPs understand it any better. They should do, but that doesn't mean they will."

It's not that MPs never come across charities - the truth is quite the opposite. Unpublished nfpSynergy research reveals that more than seven out of 10 MPs recall going to a parliamentary reception held by a charity in the preceding six months.

Then there is lobbying. Most of the major charities and campaigns pump material into the House of Commons, and their briefings are regularly cited in parliamentary debates.

Contact between voluntary organisations and MPs in their constituencies is extensive. Conservative MP Mark Lancaster has sent his parliamentary team on a grant-finding course so it can help the many small organisations that bring their financial problems to the door of his North East Milton Keynes constituency.

One indication of MPs' views on charities comes from a survey of MPs from nfpSynergy's parliamentary monitor in 2002 - a few months before the Government launched Private Action, Public Benefit, its blueprint for charity reform. It found that 60 per cent of MPs agreed that charities should be more closely regulated and 64 per cent that fundraising should be more closely regulated. But 92 per cent agreed that charities were justified in "fundraising to build a long-term income" and 84 per cent that they were justified in "fundraising to gain informed long-term supporters".

The difficulty is that, without more research, it is hard to tell whether this support in principle for spending on fundraising would translate into an understanding of how much fundraising costs and how it is carried out. Nor do the figures give any indication of MPs' perceptions of how the sector works, what it does or on what scale.

Reaching the backbenches

Stephen Bubb, head of the chief executives' umbrella body Acevo, is frequently in and out of Westminster. He says government interest in the voluntary sector means it's relatively easy to get meetings. "In fact, people are beating a path to your door," he says. "Politicians don't want to see an unhappy third sector."

But an increased awareness of voluntary sector issues in ministerial offices does not necessarily extend throughout parliament. Bubb believes few MPs are well educated in how the sector really works. "They're not as clear as they could be about how professional the sector is, or its reach," he says. "They think of it as small-scale and amateur."

At the NCVO, parliamentary officer Pete Moorey suggests that MPs' understanding is "a bit of a mixed bag". But he points out that, especially since Labour's 1997 election victory, an increasing number of MPs have voluntary sector backgrounds. "That means they'll have a better understanding," he says, adding that the Commons is nevertheless made up of hundreds of diverse individuals.

"MPs are burdened with huge amounts of information," says Moorey. "To impart specific details about the way we work is always going to be difficult. You have to be realistic about that."

Labour MP Tom Levitt, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Voluntary and Community Sector, says: "Every MP appreciates the value of the sector in their own constituency, whether they've formulated it in their head or not."

But what about the messages the voluntary sector is so keen to promote to the public - the professionalism, the need for investment in fundraising and the practical necessity of spending money on administration? Do MPs understand those?

On this count, Levitt is more doubtful. Voluntary organisations are right to be concerned that these messages might not be getting through, he says.

Interestingly, the all-party group that Levitt chairs has wiped the word 'charity' from its name. "I gave a speech saying I never wanted to hear that word again," he says.

Why? Because it conjures up the image of 'lady bountiful', he explains.

It is clear that at least one group of parliamentarians is seeking to ditch the more old-fashioned images of the voluntary sector.

Locally well aware

Former charities minister Fiona Mactaggart echoes Levitt's view that MPs are generally well aware of their own local voluntary organisations.

"Charities are good at grabbing MPs, pointing them in the right direction and letting them look like heroes," she says. "But I don't think MPs always realise how seriously commercial charities are - that they can compete with commercial companies to provide excellent services."

Mactaggart also points out that MPs will react to matters raised by their constituents. "MPs are driven by their voters," she says. "People who are accountable to voters rightly keep an eye on what they think." If voluntary bodies don't get the right messages across to the public, that will come through to MPs.

Both Levitt and Mactaggart have taken a particular interest in voluntary sector issues during their parliamentary careers. But 50 other MPs have now had direct experience of the voluntary sector through NCVO's secondment scheme - something Moorey feels will help spread a greater understanding of the daily reality of voluntary organisations around Westminster.

One MP who has taken part in the scheme is Lib Dem Annette Brook, who spent time on secondment at the RNIB. The experience left a clear impression.

"The whole operation was very businesslike," she says. "I should know that, but in your constituencies you're often dealing with charities on the ground that are really short of funds."

Conservative MP Mark Lancaster and the Lib Dem Norman Baker bear out Mactaggart's and Levitt's emphasis on the impact local voluntary organisations have on MPs. Both say they have lots of contact with groups in their constituencies.

But that isn't the only thing these politicians have in common. They might not be able to rattle off precise statistics on the activities of the voluntary sector as a whole, but all had a generally positive view.

They also drew distinctions between small local groups and the larger, household name organisations, recognising that they operate in very different circumstances. The breadth and diversity of the sector seem to come across loud and clear.

Without research into MPs' attitudes that is comparable with recent studies of the public's perception of charities, however, it will remain hard to tell whether the politicians have a better grasp of voluntary sector issues.

Moorey at the NCVO hopes discussion on the Charities Bill will help MPs understand the sector better. When the Bill finally reaches its second reading in the Commons, we may learn more about what MPs really think of it.

WHAT DO MPS KNOW ABOUT THE SECTOR?

TOM LEVITT, LABOUR

Levitt, MP for High Peak in Derbyshire, says the most efficient fundraisers are going to spend "a very small percentage on fundraising costs". But he says: "Some of the bigger charities will spend a smaller percentage than some of the smaller charities. And there are one or two that aren't dependent on fundraising at all." Levitt estimates between 10 and 20 per cent as the cost of fundraising.

He was "amazed to find out what a large proportion" of voluntary sector income comes from legacies, and adds that some charities will make money from trading activities.

He estimates that fundraising brings in between 40 and 60 per cent of the sector's total income, with 20 to 30 per cent coming from the public sector. He also believes that "grants are probably going down and the proportion from contracts going up". Levitt guesses that between 5 and 10 per cent of income goes on administration costs.

NORMAN BAKER, LIB DEM

Baker says he has lots of contact with local voluntary organisations in his Lewes constituency in Sussex. "I get lobbied by lots of NGOs, but I've no idea whether they are charities or not," he says.

Income will depend on the charity, Baker says, citing "investments, bequests, street collections, things like that". He admits he has no idea how much comes from the public sector.

He would expect charities to spend no more than 15 per cent of their income on fundraising costs, and no more than 25 per cent on administration or anything other than the purpose for which it was set.

Asked about regulation, Baker says: "I'm not very impressed by the Charity Commission, if that's what you mean." The watchdog is heavy-handed and unresponsive, he says.

MARK LANCASTER, CONSERVATIVE

Lancaster says he has quite a lot of contact with voluntary organisations in his constituency. "There are three or four hundred in Milton Keynes," he says, noting that their finances are tight compared with larger organisations.

"One of my concerns is making sure the smaller charities get a fair slice of the cake."

Lancaster believes public donations to charities are rising but that corporate giving has gone down. He says he has no idea what proportion of funds comes from the public sector, but says voluntary groups "often don't know what is available in grants". He recently sent his parliamentary team on a grant-finding course so it could help local groups.

He says: "Like all MPs, I understand you have to spend money to raise money." But he thinks fundraising costs should be minimal, adding: "I get the feeling that some of the larger organisations are spending too much." As for administration costs: "The leaner the organisation, the better."

ANNETTE BROOKE, LIB DEM

Brooke, who represents Mid Dorset and North Poole, says that because MPs have a lot of contact with voluntary organisations, there is some knowledge of how they work. She believes legacies are "fairly high up" the income generation table, but then says: "I should probably have put the public sector first." Getting support from particular corporations or businesses is important, depending on the organisation, she adds.

It is "very difficult to generalise" about charities' fundraising costs, she says. Brooke, who has been on a secondment with the RNIB, says the question of administrative costs is "interesting in terms of going along with the professionalism of the operation. I think it should be equivalent to a business organisation, maybe a little less."

She admits to not knowing much about charity regulation, but adds: "I know when things go wrong." Brooke thinks there have been "loopholes" in a system that might rely more on problems being reported than on checks by the regulator.

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