Joe Saxton: Charities shouldn't campaign? History suggests otherwise...

Many of our best-known charities have been campaigning to change government policy or public attitudes for hundreds of years, writes the co-founder of research consultancy nfpSynergy

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

There is a narrative that some politicians are trying to spread that campaigning is a diversion from the real work of charities. Charities should "stick to the knitting" of service delivery. The reality is that campaigning and service delivery are equally important for charities. Many of our best-known charities have been campaigning to change government policy or public attitudes, or both, for hundreds of years. Here are some examples.

Oxfam was formed as the Oxford committee for Famine Relief in 1942 to try to persuade the Allies to relax the blockade of Nazi-occupied Greece so the supplies that they had raised could get through.

The RSPB was founded as a movement to try to stop Victorian women wearing the feathers of rare and exotic species in their hats, and trying to persuade hat-makers not to use them as well. More than 200 bird reserves only came later.

NSPCC Within a year of the first meeting of the embryonic NSPCC in 1889, it had managed to persuade parliament to pass the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act with the support of advocates such as Lord Shaftesbury.

RSPCA It will surprise few that the RSPCA started trying to change the law from its earliest days. What might surprise is that one of the founders of the RSPCA in 1824 (then SPCA) was William Wilberforce, who was so prominent in the slave trade campaign. He was instrumental in passing Martin’s law in 1822, and the charity was then successful in getting Pease’s law passed in 1835.

Red Cross Surely Red Cross is entirely neutral and apolitical? Back in the 19th Century its founder wanted to set out some rules for how wars and conflicts should be fought. This led to the Geneva Convention, one of the very first global treaties. I defy anybody to tell me that getting governments to sign up to an international treaty is not a political act.

Action on Hearing Loss When the NHS was formed in 1948, the then RNID (already 37 years old by then) lobbied very hard to get hearing aids and batteries supplied by the nascent health service. Until then, hearing aids had been the preserve of those who could afford them.

Mencap Since its earliest days, Mencap has fought to change attitudes towards people with learning disabilities and improve rights in legislation such as the Mental Health Act 1959. In the 1970s Mencap worked with parents’ groups to fight cuts in services for people with learning disabilities.

Salvation Army Nowadays there can be few organisations that are seen as so solidly about service delivery as the Salvation Army. It wasn’t always this way. In the 1880s, the Army was so active in its work of evangelising and trying to get poor people to abstain from alcohol that The Times newspaper began to run a campaign against them (does that sound familiar?). The newspaper described the Army in turns as ridiculous, heroic, subversive, heretical, noble and duplicitous. Yet the Salvation Army and its founders, William and Catherine Booth, were instrumental in changing Victorian society’s attitude to poverty and its causes. (See Roy Hattersley’s excellent biography of William and Catherine Booth, Blood and Fire.)

The slave trade My last example is not strictly a current charity, but was one of the first global campaigns: to abolish slavery and the slave trade. One of the little-known aspects of the campaign was its attempts to repatriate slaves to Africa in the 1780s so freed slaves could start new lives there. The British reformers tried to start a colony with repatriated slaves in what is now Sierra Leone. The colonists were ravaged by disease and risked being captured by the slave traders who still worked that coast. Within a few years the venture failed, although another settlement was established later. So all we remember now is the campaign to stop the slave trade using legislation – and rightly so.

So next time you hear somebody suggesting that campaigning to change the world is an aberration of modern charity, I suggest you tell them to read up on their history.

Joe Saxton is the co-founder of nfpSynergy, a specialist charity research consultancy

This article was first published on the Third Sector blog

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