Focus: Policy and Politics - Use Westminster to your advantage

Nathalie Thomas, nathalie.thomas@haynet.com

Charities should not be afraid to engage with parliamentarians.

It's difficult to remember a time when the voluntary sector has been such hot property for politicians. With the Government courting the sector to deliver public services on the one hand, and the Tories calling on it to help draft new social policies on the other, charities have no choice but to think about public affairs.

For many voluntary organisations, public affairs is still uncharted territory, and knowing how and when to engage with parliamentarians can be a daunting business - particularly if charities are operating on a shoestring.

But as Sue Ryder Care has found since it made its first foray into public affairs last year, a good public affairs strategy can reap positive results for charities, and it doesn't always have to cost the earth.

Sue Ryder started to think about public affairs at the beginning of 2005.

"In the past it was enough to simply provide services and not look at the bigger picture," said Dan Beety, public affairs manager at the charity.

But as government funding for the charity's specialist neurological and palliative care services increased, it soon realised this had to change.

The charity had two aims: to highlight some of the problems it encountered during service delivery, such as achieving full cost recovery, and to use its experiences to influence decision-making at the top. "We set out to raise the profile of issues and actually offer solutions as well," said Beety.

Like many charities, Sue Ryder didn't have the budget to employ a whole new public affairs team, nor could it afford the services of a specialist public affairs consultancy.

It sought advice from other voluntary organisations with more experience in public affairs, contacts in the corporate sector and sympathetic politicians.

"We did a lot of thinking about what we had to offer, who we wanted to talk to and how to talk to these people," Beety said.

The charity decided to launch a strategic public affairs campaign, highlighting the problems of full cost recovery.

It targeted relevant ministers and MPs who had Sue Ryder homes in their constituencies.

This campaign soon bore fruit for the charity and it was contacted by other organisations interested in working in partnership. "It snowballed," Beety said.

But such quick success can also bring problems, Beety warned. He advised other charities to think carefully about how to deal with the response before embarking on a similar journey. "You have to be able to follow through and support what you have set up," he said.

Beety was also keen to point out that the support of the entire organisation is essential. Some people need a little persuading to use charity money for public affairs, he admitted, but the results can be invaluable. "We are now being asked for our opinion much more," he said.

KEY POINTS

- The voluntary sector is popular among politicians, so it is vital for charities to have some sort of political strategy in place

- For most, however, public affairs is uncharted territory

- Sue Ryder Care made its first foray into public affairs last year, aiming to raise awareness of full cost recovery and to influence decision-making

- It targeted ministers and MPs, and was soon contacted by organisations keen to work in partnership.

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