Elizabeth Balgobin: Now's the time to make our ask of the political parties

With the general election approaching, charities must state loudly and clearly what they need to do their work, writes our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin says charities should aim to influence candidates from all parties
Elizabeth Balgobin says charities should aim to influence candidates from all parties

This is the last of my series of columns in Third Sector before the magazine moves to a monthly publication, and I will have to find a new way of getting my rants out there. Life is dynamic and being able to adjust is an ability we all have. It's not always easy - and when we get into organisations with fixed structures, such as constitutions or assets, it can become even more difficult.

I heard about the changes to Third Sector when I was working with a group of sector leaders on how to change the dynamics and performance of their particular partnerships. During a break we were discussing the recent local and European elections, the general election next May and the lobbying act, which comes into effect this year. I was shocked to hear that some local groups that get core funding from local authorities have been told they must not refer to the lobbying act as a "gagging law". I was shocked further to hear that some local authorities have told organisations that they must not use any of their core funding to hold local hustings for the local and European elections - in effect, gagging debate and access to local politicians.

Charities cannot be party political, but many are working to change the lives of others. One of the ways that lasting change can happen is through public policy and local enactment of guidance and procedures. Finding out what your prospective local and national politicians are thinking and how they will work with you to achieve change is a legitimate activity. We understand the limitations of restricted funds, but at what point is it fair for a funder to say that an activity cannot happen? This is tricky - if someone covers your rent, does that mean you can't hold an event, such as hustings, at your venue or at the space of another charity? If the chief executive's salary is paid by a certain funder, would that funder be unable to attend the event? How are trustees meant to interpret these edicts when looking at the grant conditions?

The national sector bodies have had meetings with the charities minister, Nick Hurd, and his Labour shadow, Lisa Nandy. So far the discussions have been couched in terms of what the politicians will do for us if they are in power next May.

It is important that whoever it is understands the sector not as a homogeneous lump but as a broad church with many different functions, followers and leaders. It is important that the minister's decisions chime with our aims to change the lives of our beneficiaries and not make it worse. It is important that our minister works with us, not against us.

The problem is that we are such a broad church. We have paid staff and volunteers, elected boards and self-appointed ones; we operate in one ward of a single local authority, and nationally; we cover sick children, homeless donkeys, the arts and scrap projects; and we have multi-million pound reserves and accounts that never contain more than £1,000. That disparity is our strength and our weakness. We speak with many voices, but rarely do we speak together.

We don't have long before the general election, so we do have to mobilise to influence all candidates across all parties to work with us. The single biggest change we can make to ourselves as charities is set out our "ask". Instead of accepting what is presented to us, let us use our individual and collective power to state loudly and clearly what we need to do our work, to help our beneficiaries and to change public policy.

Elizabeth Balgobin is a charity governance consultant

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