Focus: Policy and Politics - Charities eye right type of presence

Nathalie Thomas

Increasing costs should force voluntary bodies into better planning.

Voluntary organisations are being advised to think carefully about their approach to the forthcoming party conference season as the cost of organising fringe meetings and stalls soars into the thousands of pounds.

A stall at the Labour Party conference, which is taking place later this month in Brighton, is priced between £3,200 and £9,000. Pete Moorey, parliamentary and campaigns officer at the NCVO, said charities should consider what exactly they hope to achieve.

"They should think ahead about what they're going to get out of the conferences, because they can be expensive and time-consuming," he said.

Although attending a conference can offer a number of benefits, the capital and the months of preparation required mean that, for smaller charities in particular, the outcome doesn't always reflect the resources they commit.

Ayesha Owusu-Barnaby, head of campaigns and public affairs at Macmillan Cancer Relief, said: "Everyone has their message - the danger is that yours gets lost.

"But that doesn't mean you should consider giving up. Rather, you have to work harder each year to ensure your voice is heard."

As competition for MPs' attention increases, the voluntary sector is being forced to think of ever more imaginative ways of approaching the season - particularly when it has to vie with glitzy corporate functions.

"What really works best for smaller charities, but even for larger ones, is holding an event with an independent third party," said Sophie Livingstone, head of policy and communications at the Foyer Federation.

With organisations such as think tanks able to provide financial backing as well as the ability to attract big names, the Foyer Federation has this year teamed up with the New Statesman to host a round-table event exploring issues related to the Youth Green Paper.

However, competition for external partners is strong. The Health Hotel is a collaboration of 36 charities that was launched at last year's Labour Party conference to promote thinking and debate on health. It has proved that uniting with other charities can be just as effective.

The initiative, which includes Macmillan and Cancer Research UK among its partners, was so successful that this year it will host events at all three of the main conferences, including a fringe meeting to lobby for the extension of the Health Improvement and Protection Bill.

"The Health Hotel means that ministers are able to attend events they wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to go to - this is valuable for organisations such as Macmillan," said Owusu-Barnaby.

Organisation for the political conferences begins up to a year in advance, but for charities that have nothing arranged, there are other routes.

"Organisations can send one or two members of staff to a conference as visitors for the day," said Moorey. "They can attend fringe events, ask questions and get the politicians to hear their opinions."

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