Editorial: Umbrella groups must stand up to state

Only 8 per cent of charities think the Tories offer the best policies for the voluntary sector, according to our latest survey, suggesting that the two are often not on the same wavelength.

But shadow charities minister Greg Clark was apparently tuned right in when he accused charities this week of being too polite and giving politicians an easy ride - none of the charities Third Sector has spoken to disagree with him. Which arguably rather proves his point.

In fact, close to 60 per cent of respondents to our State of the Voluntary Sector survey (see feature, page 16), conducted by nfpSynergy, agree that charities are too cautious in their campaigning, and many agree they are too conservative generally.

But that's only half the story. A similar proportion think government exerts too much control over the sector. The basic message is that charities need to be more forthright and government needs to take a step back. As governments rarely relinquish control voluntarily, it falls to charities to tackle both issues by campaigning more forcefully.

The Directory of Social Change and Navca argue that local groups are often unable to be more vocal for fear of losing funding.

This is where the umbrella groups that represent charities locally, regionally and nationally must take a stand. Individual charities might face the threat of withdrawn funding if they speak out, but collective action through a coalition or representative group sends a stronger message and reduces the risk for specific charities.

Many of the umbrella bodies are, of course, doing excellent work. Without them it is doubtful whether the sector would be basking in the unprecedented ministerial interest it currently enjoys. Having secured that interest, the challenge now is to sustain it and use it wisely, but to prevent it from developing into a stifling closeness. This means being confident enough to disagree - and to do so publicly and vigorously when necessary.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that more charities need to start scaling the walls of Buckingham Palace or marching down Whitehall to make their point. Campaigning is more subtle than that.

Some issues require external pressure provided by stunts, direct action or mobilisation of public opinion. Others are more suited to behind-the-scenes negotiations and influence from within - the sort of action that, as the NCVO points out, often goes unnoticed by the outside world. It is often useful to have a combination of the two approaches over the lifetime of a campaign.

What charities need to ask is whether they have got the balance right.

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