Cathy Pharoah: Charities can make a difference in 2012 by speaking out for those in need

Spending cuts may reduce the sector's ability to alleviate suffering, but do not reduce its power to draw attention to it, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

As the panto companies pack up their props for another year, no one is likely to believe that some fairy godmother with a magic wand is going to solve the economic problems of 2012.

But there are signs that the sector is increasingly rediscovering the power of advocacy.

Many charities have recently adopted a high profile by drawing attention to the effects of current policy. Over the Christmas period, Carers UK and Age UK joined other powerful bodies in highlighting the need to address abuse and neglect in the care of older and disabled people; they drew on Age UK research saying that of the two million people with care needs, 800,000 lacked support because of councils' spending restrictions.

Shelter highlighted the 70,000 children who will be without a home in 2012, and Crisis published research on high levels of fear about losing homes as benefit caps and unemployment take their toll.

Earlier last year, the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England opposed proposals in the new National Planning Policy Framework that could unleash a raft of unsustainable and inappropriate building across the country.

Scope spoke out against the speed, insensitivity and potential ineffectiveness of the implementation of the £2.5bn cut to disability benefit, while charities such as Locality commented on the rushed approach and unfair effects of the Work Programme.

All these examples show the sector doing its job by highlighting the people most in need in our society. Advocacy has always been one of the third sector's most important roles - in Sweden, for example, it is its most defining characteristic. We may have lost sight of this in an era of increased contracting, although Ed Miliband championed the sector's campaigning and advocacy role when he was Minister for the Third Sector.

Spending cuts may reduce the sector's ability to alleviate suffering, but do not reduce its power to draw attention to it. What the sector needs most in 2012 is to strengthen its national and local voice.

We should begin by looking at community radio stations. There are more than 200 in the UK, providing a valuable opportunity for communities to express themselves.

The BBC is planning to reduce local radio services, and Ofcom recently reported that the average annual income of community radio fell by 19 per cent to March 2011. In spite of this, Ofcom will no longer be providing annual reports on this sector. Like many other charities, community radio competes for voluntary donations of money and time, but the advantage of building a strong community radio station is that it can then support local charities' own fundraising efforts.

It is salutary to note that one of the few remaining US radio stations crewed by volunteers is in Utah, an area where giving is high despite lower than national average personal incomes.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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