Polly Neate on turning Women's Aid into a campaigning charity

The head of Women's Aid says the charity is committed to speaking out on behalf of the most vulnerable, despite fears that the lobbying act could be damaging

Polly Neate says Women's Aid has invested considerably in having more of a voice
Polly Neate says Women's Aid has invested considerably in having more of a voice

The process of turning Women's Aid into more of a lobbying organisation was taking place just as the lobbying bill - now the lobbying act - was making its way through parliament. But the charity's chief executive, Polly Neate, did not let that deter her.

Now might be a difficult time to focus on lobbying, but Neate believes the domestic violence charity really needs to lobby on behalf of its service users. When she joined Women's Aid in February last year, she consulted its member organisations and was told overwhelmingly that the charity should lobby on their behalf.

"I believe the charity sector has a duty to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable," she says. "I didn't join a charity such as Women's Aid to sit around with my mouth shut."

Neate fears that the lobbying act could be very damaging, but she believes there has been some good leadership from the sector on it. "I hope charities will push the boundaries," she says. "We will remain as close to our plans as possible and do as much as we can."

The Bristol-based charity, which supports a network of more than 300 specialist domestic violence services, previously focused on membership functions. Neate says the charity has invested considerably, given its size, in having more of a voice, although she won't reveal a figure.

Its team of 37, mainly made up of helpline staff, now includes four policy workers and two people responsible for communications and marketing activity. Women's Aid has also opened a London office in order to work better with the media and government. "The policy team is in and out of Westminster and Whitehall all the time," she says. "I would wonder what they were doing if they didn't leave the office."

Neate believes the key to being an effective lobbying organisation is to prioritise, especially when working with limited resources. "We churn out an incredible volume of work, considering our size," she says.

The charity has a strong set of missions and is concentrating on three main themes developed by the policy team: justice for women who have experienced domestic violence; meeting women's needs, such as service delivery and commissioning practice; and challenging the sexist attitudes that are at the root of violence against women.

"We have to home in on issues and be very focused, otherwise it is easy to be overwhelmed," she says. "Domestic violence is an issue that intersects every social policy issue."

Despite prioritising, Neate admits that the charity does struggle with capacity, and a difficult lesson she has learnt in her first year as chief executive is when to say no. "Sometimes another organisation is better placed than we are," she says. "We do work closely with others and refer queries and opportunities to them if we feel they are better qualified than us to talk about certain issues."

Neate says that being a newcomer to the charity has made it easier for her to change its focus. She says she has not encountered any "cultural resistance", but she acknowledges that it is easy for charities to be afraid of speaking out and to worry what stakeholders might think. "The important thing is not to be caught out and say something that isn't credible," she says.

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