Comment: Dodging rocket-propelled grenades

The party conference season is now over and many people from the voluntary sector will be back at their workplaces - some for the first time in three weeks - to conclude ... well, what?

What does the sector get out of these gatherings? Are they value for money, or are there better and cheaper ways of achieving the same goals?

The first issue is cost. Conferences are prohibitively expensive, and this immediately differentiates between those charities with big PR funds and those without. A financial gateway preserves the exclusive access to influence and power that many larger charities take for granted.

The second issue is making an impact. I once staffed a stand that cost us a substantial amount of money to rent and deck out. It was presentable, but not flash. Imagine my dismay when I saw our stand was bang opposite a major arms manufacturer - all chrome, flashing lights and leather armchairs, and double the size. My unscientific exercise concluded that casual grazers of exhibitions go for looks, style and gimmicks, rather than substance. It's a rowdy, crowded market place, so how do you project yourselves effectively where money is all too powerful?

Finally, providing you can lure people away from the rocket-propelled grenades, how best do you get your message out? Simple. By abandoning the exhibition stand. Working alongside similar charities is seen by many as effective, but I much prefer to reach out beyond my fellow travellers and look laterally at issues that disabled people want addressing. Accessible and affordable housing, decent public transport and the difficulties of living on a low income aren't niche disability issues, but are relevant to disabled and non-disabled people alike. We could be much more effective if we were to reach out to charities that are focused on the issues disabled people also care about. This harnesses expertise and experience across sub-sectors, sends out a strong message of collective intent and provides the potential for real change. Spending £10,000-plus to examine your navel really is no longer an option.

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire: jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com.

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