Voluntary sector experts have warned charities against engaging with polarising “culture wars” as political parties gear up for a general election.
At the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual general meeting, which was held online yesterday, a panel of third sector leaders urged charities to continue campaigning efforts and “ignore” culture war rhetoric.
The panel discussion was centred around building a stable future for the sector and explored the role of charities in campaigning and the importance of building reputations to inspire advocacy in the sector.
Sarah Vibert, chief executive of the NCVO, said culture wars had already posed challenges to charities and warned the problem was likely to worsen in the coming year as the election nears.
Sufina Ahmad, director at grant-maker the John Ellerman Foundation, agreed that culture wars remained an issue for the sector.
“I think disinformation and misinformation campaigns are something we should be very mindful of,” she said.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of the children’s social care charity Become, said charities should “ignore people seeking to fan the flames of so-called culture wars”.
Sacks-Jones also pointed to a recent speech by Orlando Fraser, chair of the Charity Commission, at the Charity Law Association Conference last week.
“Fraser pledged to robustly defend charities’ right to campaign lawfully, even when campaigning covers sensitive or politically divisive ground,” she said.
In his speech, Fraser told delegates: “We live in an increasingly divided society, in which public discourse is becoming ever-more polarised, and coarser.
“The work of charities, and by extension our role in regulating them, is often at the cutting, biting edge of the most sensitive, divisive of these debates.”
He added that he would “continue to encourage charities themselves to engage in public discourse in a way that is tolerant and respectful of different views”.
Speaking at the NCVO panel, Sacks-Jones said Fraser’s speech was “really important” in the current political climate, saying: “We need to be united and we also need to be unequivocal that it is not just our right to campaign but it is also our duty.”
Fadi Itani, chief executive of Muslim Charities Forum, noted concerns around the changing landscape as the election nears, saying that if parties stopped engaging in social and political issues to gain votes, it could increase pressure on the voluntary sector.
The panel also included discussions around supporting volunteers amid the cost-of-living crisis and challenges around fundraising after drops in public giving, which was revealed in the NCVO’s UK Civil Society Almanac, which was published last week.