Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, had another of his occasional round-table meetings with representatives from small charities at the Directory of Social Change last week. Those in the room ranged from representatives of national organisations dealing with rare diseases to those from local organisations delivering care and support services. Many were too small to have paid staff. Others had only one or two.
Perhaps the clearest theme to emerge was how hard small charities find it to engage effectively with government. There were two main types of concern: the difficulty of keeping up with regulation and legislation; and of getting funding and support. It was hard, one attendee said, to get your head up long enough to understand the red tape – and it changed every year anyway. Others said they were bogged down by VAT, which costs the sector £1.3bn a year.
The difficulty charities have with legislation was highlighted by questions about the lobbying bill. Many of those in the room were concerned about it, but few understood it well. Many appeared to know only that it was dangerous for them to be associated with local politicians. After the law was introduced, would their local councillor be welcome in their building, they asked? Would they be allowed to hold surgeries?
Hurd was reassuring, saying he could not imagine a charity getting into trouble if a local councillor invited himself to their building. But the exchange clearly highlighted one effect of legislation such as this: it causes charities to censor themselves. They fear that a forbidding tome from the Electoral Commission will land on their desk out of the blue, and none of them wants to be a test case. So charities end up avoiding the kind of activity not even mentioned in the law.
Another issue to surface was the anger and frustration of charities with government funding processes. One charity represented at the event had lost funding and was likely to have to close; another had received a lot of support to take over a local asset, but was receiving no support to run it. Some of those present were very angry; others were baffled; others were keen to offer advice on doing it better.
Hurd conceded that government often got it wrong. He spoke about his frustration with the commissioning and procurement procedures, calling them clunky, risk-averse and bureaucratic. And he was very clear in his support of charities’ right to campaign. "We didn’t get into this to muzzle people," he said of the lobbying bill. "I’ve spent years saying that the freedom of the sector to campaign has never been more important."
Asked how a charity should engage effectively with government, he made three points – don’t whinge, articulate clearly what help you need and show that you are solving a problem. Hurd advised everyone to approach him with solutions, not problems.
Overall, it was hard to avoid the impression that the charities minister must sometimes feel like he’s a mother bird faced with a nest full of squawking fledglings with their mouths open, reflexively demanding to be fed. But Hurd makes an outstanding job of listening patiently and politely, even if his answers aren’t always what people want to hear.