Campaigning: dying, or just evolving?

Some believe that charities have lost their campaigning zeal in the shadow of the lobbying act, but that isn't the universal view of the sector. John Plummer reports

Ian Theodoreson, chair of the Charity Finance Group, suggested in an interview with Third Sector in May that the voluntary sector had lost some of its fervour.

"If I look back to 1987, the sector was much more amateurish than it is now, but it was more passionate," said Theodoreson, who steps aside as chair in the autumn. "I think we've lost that passion, and we need to rediscover it. We need people to stand up and say that this sector is important and not to lose that vision."

Standing up for others is at the heart of charity campaigning, so is it fair to say that this aspect is in decline?

In April, the think tank Civil Exchange published A Shared Society? The Independence of the Voluntary Sector in 2017, which said there was a "growing and deeply concerning self-censorship" among charities, caused by factors such as the 2014 lobbying act, gagging clauses in contracts, the 2016 announcement of a "no advocacy clause" for grant agreements and restrictive Charity Commission guidance on campaigning during the EU referendum.

Caroline Slocock, director of the think tank and a former civil servant, says the new government should change the narrative put forward by the political right that charities should stick to service delivery.

"It's important for the government to be clear about the role of charities in developing policy and being a voice for the voiceless," says Slocock. "Charities have massive expertise and government should be welcoming it, even more so now government is smaller. If they don't draw on that expertise, they can't make good policy."

We are seeing the impact of food banks and poor social housing; there has been a resurgence of the idea that now is the time to be outspoken.

Kathy Evans, chief executive, Children England

Slocock says there are still plenty of good examples of campaigning but cites the lobbying act, which requires organisations that spend more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Wales on campaigning before an election to register with the Electoral Commission, as the greatest threat to preventing voluntary organisations from speaking up. "It doesn't actually affect that many charities, but is heavily symbolic," she says.

'Implement Hodgson'

In June, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and five other umbrella bodies called on the government to implement reforms to the act proposed by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. They included reducing the scope of the act to include only activity that is intended to influence how people vote.

Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the NCVO, says the act has had a "chilling effect", but regulation remains necessary and Hodgson's amendments were the best way forward, although finding parliamentary time for them will be challenging with Brexit looming.

Wilding thinks widespread coverage of the act could be counter-productive. "If you keep reminding charities of the problems, they will conclude it is too complicated and not bother," he says. But overall, he adds, charities are "raising their voices more than ever" despite difficult finances.

Localism, says Wilding, has made central government less of a focus for campaigning, and digital has helped charities do more for less cost. He also welcomes the trend towards merging fundraising and communications departments to encourage "a more holistic view" of supporters rather than watering down campaigning. "Charities still provide a strong voice," he says.

Dave Timms, senior political campaigner at Friends of the Earth, agrees that campaigning remains vibrant despite unwelcome government intervention.

In April, the Electoral Commission fined the environmental group £1,000 for failing to register as a non-party campaigner. Timms says the fact that a large organisation devoted solely to campaigning fell foul of the act because of an administrative oversight highlights how difficult compliance can be.

He describes the lobbying act as "utterly ludicrous" and says Friends of the Earth dedicated a staff member to compliance during the recent general election. "Our supporters would rather our money was spent elsewhere," he says.

But Timms adds that campaigners will always speak up on issues about which they are passionate. "We can't be quiet on things like climate change," he says.

sue tibballs

Sue Tibballs (right), chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, says there are now unprecedented levels of public engagement with campaigning, even though government measures "have muddled understanding of the space to campaign among charities".

Campaigning is evolving, says Tibballs, away from command-and-control ventures towards devolved campaigns that allow a broad range of organisations and individuals to join within defined parameters.

She says there is more collaboration between charities and more creative types of campaigning, such as the gentle activism of the Craftivist Collective, whose methods include sending messages on handkerchiefs to Marks & Spencer shareholders urging them to pay staff living wages.

Digital campaigns, says Tibballs, were in danger of turning people off through overuse. "They're good for putting issues on the agenda and mobilising, but they can also antagonise," she says.

She adds that there is a need to detoxify the language. "As soon as you talk about campaigning, people think it's about taking an adversarial position," she says. "For us, campaigning means to pursue change, which could be in attitude, service design or behaviour. There's more of this going on than ever, but it's changing."

Tibballs says the US benefits from having an infrastructure sector that supports campaigning and hopes the foundation's 15-month social change project, which began in June, will begin to address this in Britain by discovering more about how to effect change.

Kathy Evans, chief executive of Children England, which campaigns on behalf of the children's sector, says cuts have badly hurt budgets and forced some charities to cut back on campaigning to focus purely on service delivery. But the picture is more nuanced, she says, citing Children England as an example.

Perversely stronger

It received government funding every year from its foundation in 1942 until 2013. In the four years since then its annual income has plummeted from £1.4m in 2013 to just over £500,000, but Evans says the perverse effect has been to make the charity stronger. "We have shrunk back to purely campaigning and it's been liberating," she says.

She detects a changing mood among campaigners. "A lot of charities were brought round the table by New Labour, and the Compact repositioned relations with the government," she says. "Now we are seeing the acute impact of food banks and poor social housing, and charities have got angrier.

"In the past 18 months there has been a resurgence of the idea that now is the time to be outspoken again."

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