Brian Lamb: We should always put beneficiaries at the centre of charity campaigns

The sector needs to find ways of ensuring there are impact and professionalism, while reasserting our direct links to our causes, writes our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

Can you become too professional in how you campaign? This might sound like a bizarre question for those of us who have spent time trying to improve effectiveness and professionalism in the sector. But perhaps that professionalism has come at a price. The massively increased level of charity engagement with parliament, more sophisticated public communications and the combining of campaigning with fundraising could be seen to have blurred the lines between authentic protest and manufactured dissent.

This is certainly one of the undercurrents that flows through the debate on the lobbying bill. There has been a Greek chorus of backbench MPs complaining about the activities of larger charities, which they see as being professional campaigners, not the authentic voice of those they serve.

Think tanks of a certain leaning have also weighed in with the criticism that charity campaigning is being sponsored by government departments, and government documents have even echoed those criticisms. You do not have to see this as the worst of times for charities to see the dangers if this view takes hold.

Complaints from government about charity campaigning could be seen as proof of the sector's effectiveness and are hardly a new development.

Governments of all colours try to manage dissent, but with the focus on lobbying and the sector this has become more acute and there are issues the sector must address.

Good campaigns are increasingly striving to put the authentic voice of the people they represent back at the heart of communications. This is crucial if we are to ensure that communications are grounded in issues, not just in fundraising and brand promotion. Campaigns can often look shrill if they try to outbid each other on the index of misery instead of building connections with audiences and issues. This is especially true in times of austerity, when many of that audience think they are having a hard time as well.

The sector needs to find ways of ensuring there are impact and professionalism, while reasserting our direct links to our causes. At the moment, government is looking for the 'real' voice of those for whom charities work - especially at community level - without the intervention of campaigners. It is hardly new to suggest that beneficiaries or members need to be at the centre of campaigns, but the sector has at times forgotten how to show the clear thread that should go from front-line experience and need to policy solution.

Ensuring that user and member voices are directly communicated to politicians and decision-makers as often as possible, face to face, is still the most powerful form of campaigning. Charities are still far more trusted and respected than most of those they target in both the commercial and political sectors. Membership is higher in many charities than in political parties, and there is a capacity to motivate and inspire that is the envy of politicians and the commercial sector.

But we should not take this for granted, and we need to harness professionalism to the raw energy of those whose causes we promote. When we do both of these things, we show that campaigning is not whingeing but the fulfilment of our charitable mission.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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