Mark Flannagan: The charity sector lacks political capital

We have failed to establish our necessity with either the public or politicians, writes our columnist

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

I can understand that last week’s Budget from the Chancellor brought both disappointment and relief to many in our sector. One of the worst things in life is to be ignored, but it was also inevitable that, had Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, laid his beady eyes on us, the consequences would have been negative and costly. We could not have expected him to give us much when so much is being taken from others. I suggest, however, that we ought to be worried that charities and our needs are still relegated to the afterthoughts of government .

If the Chancellor had failed to mention the NHS or education he would not have been pushing the right buttons with the voters: the outcry would have dominated the news bulletins. If he had mentioned charity I reckon many would just have switched off. The former two are immediately relevant in the everyday life of most whereas charity is, well, boring. Isn’t that a shame?

Given the focus on bad practice in recent years, some might be relieved not to be in the headlines. That would be a massive mistake. It is our job to keep people talking about our benefit to society. That is why the recent initiative by Acevo, the Institute of Fundraising, the Charities Aid Foundation and CharityComms to highlight the benefits of charity to society is superb. But we do have to ask if it goes far enough. We need to seriously consider why we, a sector that engages and employs so many and delivers such huge benefit to our society, can be ignored.

Put simply, it is because we are not a power in the land. We are not a force to be reckoned with. Of course, some of the major charities are now pretty much woven into the establishment. Individually, they get access to those in power and rightly use that access for the good of their causes. Their conversations in the corridors of power take place all the time, and well done to them. Our sector representative body, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has some of this high-level access too. Sir Stuart Etherington, its chief executive, is a good player in the influence game.

Where I have concerns is that we do not collectively have real power. We cannot, frankly, threaten any government with consequences if we aren’t listened to. This is partly down to a lack of economic might, which our trade unions once used to have and wield so easily. Those days are past, anyway. What we ought to be able to rely on and cannot is the fury of the public to protest on our behalf. If the public could reverse George Osborne’s pasty tax, what would our version of that be? I think we have failed to establish our worth and necessity, so we have not built any political capital. We are not a significant political player. This has to change.

The good news is that our sector bodies are showing signs of working together more, and doing so happily. This is something to build on. I would like to see a more unified policy voice on cross-sector issues, and for those issues to be the ones that we collectively identify. Our shared manifesto ought to be a challenge to government to deliver, based on a bleak picture of life without us. We need to find a voice so loud it cannot be ignored.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlannCEO) is chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer

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