Dean Russell: charities should be using the internet as a tool for social change

Only a few took advantage of the election to get their points across, says the head of digital marketing at Precedent Communications

By the time you read this, the general election will be over and I will either be a district councillor or licking my wounds after losing my campaign.

Either way, I will have spent four weeks fully immersed in election campaigning. And along the way, I have found myself seriously questioning why I am not hearing more noise from the third sector.

You could argue that the rules of purdah stifled charities and prevented them from speaking out more, but this isn't what purdah was designed for. It is there to stop organisations giving, or being perceived to be giving, an unfair advantage or support to a specific party.

So the election period should have been a time when charities used their communications channels to create disruption and noise, scrutinise politicians directly and make them feel they must listen. Instead, we had silence.

Some good election petition and awareness sites were set up, including the NSPCC's I Stand for Children and the RSPCA's Political Animal.

But surely, with more than 180,000 charities in England and Wales, we should have seen far more disruptive activity on social media sites such as Twitter.

The only group that seemed to take a real lead during the run-up to the election was the Christian charity Care, which organised more than 100 hustings debates in churches throughout the country. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Nola Leach, chief executive of Care, said: "In the context of widespread voter apathy and public disillusionment with politics, these hustings demonstrate the dynamic and important role that the church is playing in helping people engage in the political process." What a great example of leading the discussion without falling short of purdah rules.

I'm also disappointed because this election handed the sector a gift. MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates have been flocking to sites such as Twitter to connect with an untapped electorate. The chance to lobby, cajole and even embarrass some of them to help make a point has been huge. But so far there has been nothing.

You might wonder why I'm being so critical. The sector has a duty to hold politicians to account, and the web can be integral to this. But this election has raised concerns that the sector isn't embracing the web as a tool for change. Instead, many charities still see it only as a marketing tool. With the election over, I hope the sector will evaluate how the web can help deliver its promises to make a better world.

FACT FILE - RUSSELL AND NETWORKING

Dean Russell was the Conservative candidate for Harpenden East in the election for the Liberal Democrat-controlled St Albans District Council.

More than 14,000 people pledged their support to the NSPCC's I Stand for Children campaign, which aims to push child protection up the political agenda of the new parliament.

The RSPCA's Political Animal microsite outlined the animal welfare issues it wants the new government to prioritise. They include animal experiments and wild animals and circuses.

Care created a hustings guide to encourage churches to organise local hustings events with parliamentary candidates across the country.

The purdah period is a political convention that prevents ministers and civil servants from taking decisions or making policy announcements in the pre-election period.

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