Sue Tibballs: It's our campaigning that sustains the third sector

Our columnist was taken aback when someone suggested the most interesting campaigns are no longer coming from the charity sector

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

At a voluntary sector event in Scotland last month, someone said to me that "the most interesting campaigns today are not coming from the charity sector". I was taken aback. Haven't charities always been at the vanguard of social campaigning?

A look at the winners of this year's SMK Campaigner Awards suggest this person had a point. Of the nine issue-specific categories, only two were won by charities this year – All Walks Beyond the Catwalk for its work on diversity in the fashion industry, and the If U Care Share Foundation, set up to encourage more open discussion of suicide. All the other winners were individuals or small groups – such as Martin Emery and his family, whose United Discriminated campaign forced dramatic changes in access to football stadia for disabled people.

SMK's roots are in supporting grass-roots and marginalised campaigns and campaigners. So perhaps we need to extend our reach if we want to attract more entrants from bigger charities. But I think something else is going on too.

Take homelessness. Shelter, one of our award sponsors, has been campaigning for 50 years now on homelessness and poor housing. It still does this to great effect - last year, for example, it campaigned successfully for a ban on revenge evictions. Yet the vast majority of its income is now spent on providing advice and support to those at risk of homelessness. It is a strong success story that Shelter can pursue its objectives both by raising awareness of the problem and by being part of the solution. But this can bring conflicts.

Such a body has to be an independent voice that holds government to account, but which also takes public funds to deliver services. It needs to tell positive stories about impact to funders, while pointing out how much more needs to be done to keep money flowing in from donors. It has to integrate campaign messages with fundraising appeals, brand-building and so on. Campaigners in charities say they struggle to compete for attention and resources among other priorities.

By way of comparison, another of our award winners this year was E15, which campaigns on housing issues in east London. It has done much to raise the profile of social housing and forced eviction. It is a group of mothers with minimal resources and no formal legal entity - only themselves and the power of their arguments. If it has achieved cut-through and grabbed the public's attention, it is easy to see why. It can be more outspoken and has no conflicts to manage. It is always a powerful story when small groups of people take on big vested interests.

In my view, there is a place for both kinds of campaigning. They each do things the other cannot, so they are vital to a healthy campaign ecosystem. But if there is a perception that charities are not actively campaigning or delivering the really innovative, game-changing campaigns, this is a concern. Campaigns are the clearest expression of a charity's core values and purpose, and are what engage and inspire. Campaigns also call for the kinds of support that charities then get involved in providing. You could say that it is campaigning - our values and our voice - that more than anything else sustains the sector.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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