Opinion: Guidelines on campaigning are too vague to work

Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

From February to May this year, I was a visiting professor at Harvard's Divinity School, in the named 'Bloomberg' chair, the money for which was donated by Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, in memory of his father.

The theme of this professorship was philanthropy and public policy - and my seminar series was constructed to discuss and demonstrate just what the link is between philanthropy and public policy.

In the UK, there is a rich tradition of philanthropy influencing public policy - hospices are a key example. The foundations that put the money together for Dame Cicely Saunders to open her first hospice, St Christopher's, changed our thinking about palliative care. During my time as chief executive of the King's Fund, we piloted a technique known as assertive outreach, together with the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, as a means of reaching people with mental illness who were otherwise hard to reach. So successful was it that, before the pilots were completed, it had become part of the Government's National Service Framework. Similarly, the King's Fund's Enhancing the Healing Environment programme, designed to get nurses and patients to improve areas of hospitals and other health premises, has become part of the mainstream. There are hundreds of other examples.

But in order to influence public policy, a certain amount of campaigning is necessary, even if it is confined to relatively polite stating of the obvious. And that is where the Charity Commission's guidance on campaigning needs further work, as Rosamund McCarthy argued so powerfully a few weeks ago (Third Sector, 16 August). For if evidence-based, overt campaigning - designed to get government and public to recognise that more money needs to come from the public purse for end-of-life care in general - is to be described as 'political', then it may be difficult to do much of the work essential to the effectiveness of charities.

I am sure the Charity Commission's guidance was never meant to be like this. I am sure we were not supposed to think we could get into such trouble, whether from the Charity Commission itself or from the TV and radio regulations that regard such campaigning as 'political'. But until it is sorted out, the sterling work many funders have done to encourage pilot programmes in the hope that they will prove themselves, and thus get government funding, is under some threat. For we can only make the case if we are allowed to do so. Where making the case publicly stops and campaigning begins is far from clear.

At Harvard we heard from 14 past masters of the art of funding pilots and then persuading government that it was worth funding. In my view, that is part of what charitable foundations are there for. Is someone going to tell them they cannot do what we were set up to do - for the public benefit? Surely not. The situation needs clarifying fast.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THE SUBJECT ...

- The 23-page Charity Commission publication CC9, Campaigning and Political Activity by Charities, describes the activities the commission thinks can be undertaken under the existing law, and gives examples.

- The commission says it is exploring ways in which the advice in the publication can be more fully explained. This is expected to include a question-and-answer document.

- This follows a meeting at which the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and People & Planet showed the commission the results of its survey, which found that many charities thought the current guidelines were ineffective and caused uncertainty.

- Campaigners argue that charities are unfairly inhibited not only by commission guidelines, but also by the restrictive definition of what is 'political' in TV and radio regulations and by limits on demonstrations in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.

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