Debra Allcock Tyler: Stop whingeing and speak out

Charities have a habit of complaining in private about bad policy instead of protesting in public, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

There are times when I am really cross with us as a sector. Recently I was at an event that was opened by one of the local councillors. She wittered on about the "valuable" and "important" work of the local voluntary sector, and about how the council wanted to work in "partnership" - with the caveat that it didn't have any money. But, she stressed chirpily, she knew that we could be relied upon to deliver anyway. Grrr.

The reality is that if that particular local authority really believed that the work of the voluntary and community sector was so valuable, it would put its money where its mouth was. So she wasn't telling the truth. And what did the audience do? Nothing, other than what some of us in the sector do all too often - roll our eyes, sigh and mutter sub voce. So she got away with it. She's not unique: she did what politicians up and down the country do all the time - patronise us by telling us that we are critically important, then fail completely to act as if we actually were.

Well, enough is enough! I'm tired of being told there's no money. It's not true. There's loads of it. The UK is the sixth-largest economy in the world in terms of GDP. Despite the cuts, in England the local authority settlement was £26bn. So the problem we face in the sector is not lack of money but the choices that government and local authorities make about where and how to spend it. And mostly it's not on our sector, which proves that they don't think we're that important.

This is also true nationally. Party conference season is upon us, and it's clear that the major parties couldn't give a toss about us. The Liberal Democrats don't even seem to realise we exist - witness the party's distinct lack of any coherent comment or direction about voluntary action. Labour, who courted us when in government, barely mentions us these days - which is particularly galling when you consider that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was once minister for the third sector. And, judging by its recent actions, the Conservative Party appears to actually despise and distrust us.

But some of this is our fault. After I've delivered a keynote speech, members of the audience will often thank me for speaking out and saying what they feel. Which is fine - except that they should be saying it themselves at their local council meetings, in interviews with the local media and to their own funders and supporters. I'm only one voice. Loud I may be - but I'm not loud enough to be heard across the entire country (although I do try).

Had the local councillor been presenting to a group of business leaders or teachers, you can bet she wouldn't have got away with such patronising tripe without being soundly heckled. We have got to stop the low-level moaning, start fighting back and be bolshier. Otherwise, we've only got ourselves to blame for yet more damaging policy, less funding and a lot more eye-rolling.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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