A decade ago, party conferences were a must for charities hoping to influence the government’s agenda. It’s unclear whether this is still the case.
One of the problems is the declining number of politicians who attend party conferences. Research carried out by the consultancy nfpSynergy found that 45 per cent of Conservative MPs and 36 per cent of Labour MPs did not attend their party’s conference in 2015, and some believe even fewer will have attended this year.
Party conferences are also an expensive exercise. Exhibition stands, where organisations can promote their campaigns and receive visits from MPs and party members, start at £1,500 at Labour and £4,950 at the Tory event, including discounts. Just booking a time-slot for a fringe event – a small-scale event that takes place around the main conference – at the Tory conference costs at least £500 plus VAT. Add on room hire, catering, audio-visual and any other equipment costs and the price can reach tens of thousands of pounds.
"Charities need to think carefully about how they use their budget to the best effect," says Shaun Walsh, director of external relations at Together for Short Lives. "Having a stand or holding an event might not be the best way." TfSL has found it more effective to treat the conferences as a networking opportunity.
Nevertheless, some charities have been able to reduce the costs of exhibiting by securing sponsorship for their stands. Breast Cancer Care, for example, had stands at the Conservative, Labour and SNP conferences that were paid for by its corporate partner Pfizer. It also brought two of its beneficiaries along because it felt that speaking directly to people with personal experiences of breast cancer would help to engage MPs and give more meaning to their policy asks. The sight-loss charity Guide Dogs, meanwhile, brings an "engagement dog" to every conference in a bid to get parliamentarians chatting.
Several charities believe the impact they achieve in the exhibition hall is worth the costs they incur. Sarah Woolnough, executive director of policy and information at Cancer Research UK, says the charity stopped exhibiting from 2009 to 2012 because of the expense involved, but started using stands again three years ago because it was rolling out a new campaign about cigarette packaging.
"Exhibiting at party conferences is particularly important after changes in government and opposition parties, when there are new stakeholders to engage with," she says.
According to nfpSynergy’s research, charities that show "creativity and interactivity" impress conference-going politicians most of all, and both CRUK and the National Autistic Society showed evidence of that this year. They attracted MPs to their stands with the promise of trying out their virtual reality headsets.
Jessica Leigh, senior campaigns officer at the NAS, says the charity found that getting MPs to watch its VR film depicting how life can feel for an autistic person was a highly effective engagement mechanism. "I lost count of the number of MPs and others who stopped by to gain a better understanding of the condition," she says.
There are also ways to make it more cost-effective for charities to host fringe events. Partnering with other organisations or making events invitation-only is a good way to keep costs down, says John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation. "Private events are cheaper because the numbers are smaller," he says. "You’re handpicking the attendees, so it’s more tightly organised. And not having to open it up to questions means you can discuss a very specific agenda." The downside of this approach is that it might deter publicity-seeking politicians from attending.
Low believes the subject matter is the most important factor in getting parliamentarians along, the ultimate aim for such events. "You need to speak their language and take into account the party’s underlying direction and priorities, and how you can fit your event to that," he says.
Don’t forget the buffet though, he says: "Food attracts people – especially the Lib Dems."