The power to speak truth to power

In the wake of attacks from politicians and the media, charities must still have the confidence to speak out, writes Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

What is the nature of the charity sector’s power? That’s a question I was posed recently.  You might think precious little, given the hammering it has had over the last couple of years, from politicians and tabloids alike. Even the Chair of the Charity Commission takes pot shots. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a concerted plot.

Or perhaps that in itself demonstrates the sector’s power and influence. To some, big charities are too big and professional, increasingly part of the establishment, and distant. Charities have reasonably become subject to the same scrutiny and accountability expected of the public and corporate sectors. 

And in terms of some fundraising practice, some have been caught badly short.

Some scrutiny is fair and appropriate; some digs are of the barrel-scraping variety (shock horror, charity employees live in houses in London, and have social lives), and others are certainly aimed at taking charities down a peg or two. Playing the ‘political’ card is a sure sign of that one.

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist" said Archbishop Helder Camara in the face of military dictatorship in 1970s Brazil. It’s a line worth dusting down as charities sense their space to speak out under threat.

Here’s one of the Daily Mail’s recent rants on the "vicious war" charities are allegedly waging. "It seems these insidious fifth columnists, hijacked by the Left, continue to give succour to Britain’s enemies." The enemies in question were refugees fleeing the horrors of war and ISIS in Syria, incidentally.

Earlier this year Archbishop Justin Welby earned the wrath of Iain Duncan Smith for calling his welfare reforms "unfair and immoral". His predecessor Rowan Williams had also been rebuked for "meddling in politics". Yet it was the unelected House of Lords and bishops that knocked back the Chancellor’s punitive tax credits aimed at poor people.

Long before the days of an interrogating media, or even uppity charities, voicing uncomfortable truths was often left to churchmen, who answered to a higher authority and so could risk an independent view. In days gone by a Court fool might have been tolerated to keep their lord grounded, but it was a dangerous business being a counsellor too close to the seat of power, and a brave one who refused to be a sycophant. Not that priests were always safe. Thomas Beckett was Henry II’s turbulent priest, cut down in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, and the Tudors really had it in for them.

More recently, the 1980 assassination of Oscar Romero, ‘Bishop of the Poor’, sparked civil war in El Salvador. Archbishop Desmond Tutu managed to be an almost untouchable voice of opposition inside apartheid South Africa, but assassination attempts were made on other church leaders, most notoriously Frank Chikane who survived his clothing being impregnated with poison.

Desmond Tutu had a good joke about speaking out and holding the powers that be to account. Taking on the Good Samaritan no less, he’d say it was all very well for him to patch up the traveller battered by bandits, but what had he done to get the authorities to make that road safer?

Charities draw their power and independence from their role in society, their idealism and altruistic motives, the experience of those they serve, their public support, and their accumulated expertise. Speaking truth to power has never been the easy option, but is as vital as ever, Charities, when they know what they’re talking about, should take strength from that.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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