Sue Tibballs: Changing attitudes is as vital as probing policy

A narrow interpretation of campaigning does no good for anyone in civil society, writes our columnist

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

What do you understand by the term "to campaign"? I've always understood it to mean to bring about change in a broad sense, and seen campaigns as trying to change everything from attitudes and behaviour to cultural norms, policy and law. But I'm struck by a trend in our sector to equate campaigning more narrowly with policy and advocacy.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. In fact, it is important. In the recent parliamentary debate about the third reading of the charities bill, Anna Turley, the shadow minister for civil society, rightly said that charities are "often best placed to provide important insights that can inform and improve policymaking. They are often the ones on the front line who see the gaps in provision, the duplication of services and the inefficiency and waste, and who spot the ways of solving or, better still, preventing problems."

I wonder if this narrow interpretation might be contributing to some of the tensions around charities and campaigning? If campaigning is about the sector's role in influencing attitudes and behaviour, as well as scrutinising policy, then don't the benefits of campaigning become clearer?

Take something like the growing price of physical inactivity - estimated to cost the economy in England £8.2bn a year. It is very much in governments' interests that, say, the British Heart Foundation carries out public-facing campaigns to encourage people to lead healthier lives, or that Help for Heroes runs fundraising campaigns to provide support to ex-servicemen and women who otherwise would be reliant on the state.

This government is undoubtedly acting to constrain the space for campaigning, and the third sector needs to be robust in challenging this. But I feel the sector would be able to mount a much more effective challenge if it maintained a broader interpretation of what it is to campaign.

I would argue that policy and advocacy are just tools in service of a much wider goal - allowing citizens to contribute to political thinking in the broadest sense, to say what matters to them, to challenge societal norms and to argue for a shift in political priorities if they do not think existing policy serves them. Don't we all join and support charities in large part to allow them to do this?

Charities are at the heart of civil society and have played a central role in every major political advance, from civil liberties to climate change. Sheila McKechnie put the interests of homeless people on the political agenda in the 1970s, then established the concept of consumer rights in the 1980s. None of these activities have been partisan. Charities don't - and can't - act in the interests of a particular political party, but they do follow closely what the government of the day is doing, in the interests of their beneficiaries. And why shouldn't they? A government is ruling on behalf of all of us - isn't it?

My call to the sector, then, is: don't confine this debate to the role charities should play in scrutinising policy; this is important, but it is in service of a much bigger and vitally important role - to be robust contributors to civil society and political debate. Homeless people need somewhere safe to sleep. They are also entitled to have their voices heard.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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