Brian Lamb: The most successful campaigns will bring new vision to old policy issues

Charity campaigning should be trying to innovate and reform public services rather than getting trapped into defending the status quo, says our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

The sector bemoans what it sees as a self-imposed corset on campaigning, with 89 per cent of respondents to a recent Third Sector straw poll saying that charity service contracts have made the sector less willing to speak out. At the same time, Daily Telegraph columnist Fraser Nelson has just spoken out against too much charity campaigning on welfare and education reform. So who has got it right?

On the sector's concerns, charities have doubtless always been cautious about revealing the limitations imposed by contracts, not least because these now often come with clauses that clearly restrict comment, and smaller organisations are especially vulnerable to pressure. But that's far from the whole picture.

Campaigns are more often about large changes to the systems of entitlements rather than protecting the existing contracts of particular organisations. It is the impact of changes on client groups that charities try to communicate when entitlements are withdrawn or provision fails.

Yes, sometimes this will lead to service contracts downstream for those organisations, but the primary aim is to ensure that clients get the most appropriate services.

Campaigning is now integral to many organisations' overall marketing and brand positioning. Some of the biggest and best-supported charity brands are also the biggest campaigners and communicators. They can only take a stand on issues if they have public support. The idea that they will decide to pull back from campaigning or be restricted simply because of contractual relationships is neither likely nor part of their ethos.

Nelson blames the expansion of campaigning on loosening charity regulation, but misunderstands that regulation has not actually changed and that charity supporters expect charities to speak out for their beneficiaries.

It can be inconvenient to governments when charities do this, but it is not a sign of political bias - witness the number of Conservative who have won parliamentary awards for campaigning with charities.

The best campaigning also serves government well by ensuring that policies are scrutinised and improved. If the policy is robust, what should governments have to fear? But saying there is not too much campaigning is not to say that charities have got campaigning right. Too often, recent campaigns on welfare and education have got no further than trying to defend a status quo of which they were previously critical.

Charity campaigning should be trying to innovate and reform public services rather than getting trapped into defending the status quo. At worst, this has meant no positive vision or opportunity to move the debate forward, leaving many recent campaigns on welfare and education looking backwards and unable to challenge the way the debate has been framed for them by government.

Austerity will not go away for a long time, as all parties have acknowledged. The most successful campaigns will be those that recognise this and are trenchant with governments of any complexion, but are also seen as bringing new vision to old policy issues.

When the sector does this well, it is less vulnerable to charges of pulling its punches out of self interest or of bias against government policies.

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

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