Independent voices from civil society are essential to debate and political discourse within a democratic society. Charities and NGOs can bring the unique perspectives and experience to the table that often others can’t.
In recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of threats to the ability of charities to speak out on important issues, most notably from the much-discussed lobbying act. Recently, The Times revealed that 22 charities involved with programmes to help people back into work were forced to sign gagging clauses preventing criticism of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Esther McVey.
The worry now is that successive measures such as those detailed above will contribute to a chilling effect. Organisations will be less likely to speak out or to take risks that are in the interests of their work or society as a whole because they fear a Charity Commission investigation or, in some cases, the loss of contracts or funding.
In recent years, there have been a number of notable instances of organisations being rapped over the knuckles for statements they have made that have been deemed by the Charity Commission to demonstrate political bias. One of the most memorable examples of this was an Oxfam Tweet about austerity in 2014.
While there has been significant debate about and opposition to the lobbying act, it can feel that as a sector we’re not always good at arguing our corner. The slew of fundraising scandals and controversies relating to other issues, such as senior pay, has created a climate where many understandably find it difficult to put their heads above the parapet and defend charity practices.
When you combine the effects of scandals in the sector with threats to the ability of organisations to speak out on key social issues you end up with an environment where the role of organisations to represent their beneficiaries or those they campaign for is threatened.
Alongside defending the role of NGO voices within society, I believe that we need to boost public understanding of how we operate as organisations, including our approaches to fundraising. In recent weeks businesswoman and campaigner Gina Miller called for charities to be regulated as businesses, as reported by Third Sector. Opinions vary on Miller’s interventions in the sector, but what was good to see were the strong responses and debate that was created this time as a result of her interjection.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has often been outspoken in its defence of the sector when it has perceived an intervention or report to be misplaced in its view, such as a notable report from Miller’s True and Fair Foundation in 2015 on charity overheads, which it dubbed "neither true nor fair".
As we reach the end of 2018, it’s worth reflecting on the highs and lows for the sector as a whole. It’s likely that in 2019 and beyond the sector will face further threats to its ability to speak out as well as additional criticism of fundraising and operational practices.
While there has been opposition to the lobbying act and other threats that organisations face, we need to get better as charities and as individuals in the sector at joining the dots and really advocating for how our organisations are run. We also need to fight to defend the very role and function of NGO campaigning within a democratic society.
Andrew Taylor-Dawson is development manager at the human rights organisation Liberty