It helps to have friends in high places

Securing the support of an MP can help to push your charity's cause up the political agenda and can even lead to a meeting with the Prime Minister

Charities remain as eager as ever to persuade actors, pop stars and TV presenters to support their causes, but it's easy to overlook the contribution a less glamorous kind of public figure can make - the Member of Parliament.

Andrew Slaughter, Labour MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, might not be a name that crops up in the tabloids, but his support for the Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre over the past 10 years has proved invaluable.

Tony Pullen, an adviser for the law centre, says: "When Andrew was leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council, he became a member of our management committee. During that time, we received continuous financial support. I really think it had a lot to do with the fact that Andrew had seen our work first hand and recognised the value of what we were doing."

When Slaughter became an MP in 2005, his commitment to the law centre did not wane. When a new Conservative administration proposed cuts to local voluntary services a year later, he became a vocal opponent of the move. "Andrew has offered us practical advice about how to challenge the proposal and get it on the agenda for the council, because he knows how it all works," explains Pullen. He also raised the issue with Ed Miliband, then minister for the voluntary sector.

 Making a special effort 

In the law centre's case it was serendipity that led to one of its most loyal supporters ending up in an influential position in government. But the Every Disabled Child Matters coalition made a special effort to woo Ed Balls, now Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

"When we got together three years ago, we consciously targeted key MPs, including Ed Balls, who was seen as a rising star," says Steve Broach, campaign manager for the coalition. "We arranged for Ed to meet the families of disabled children in his constituency, which persuaded him to support us."

Balls was also influential in his role at the Treasury, pushing for a review of resources for disabled children. That resulted in the recent allocation of £340m for that area.

"With Ed, we were very lucky," says Broach. "It's not often that your major supporter goes first to the Treasury and then to the main department you're working with. I had to pinch myself when he took up his latest post and said that not only did he want to make sure every child matters, but also that every disabled child matters."

Let them come to you 

The Motor Neurone Disease Association did not even have to make an approach - Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire and third sector spokesman for his party, contacted the charity. He wrote offering his help after his father died from the disease.

"When we asked Lembit if he wanted to be president, he was delighted," says Donna Cresswell, director of communications at the charity. "As president you would expect him to be a passionate advocate of the cause, but he also has influence in key areas and has an amazing ability to cross party boundaries and persuade people to listen to him."

Opik has helped to arrange a meeting between the charity and Prime Minister Gordon Brown this month. He has also put forward several questions to the Prime Minister and submitted early day motions about motor neurone disease.

Umbrella body the NCVO has been running an MPs secondment scheme since 1999 for charities that find it harder to attract support from politicians. Celia Barlow, Labour MP for Hove, has been on secondment to blindness charity Sightsavers International since last year and has provided advice on lobbying and influencing opinion formers. She has also hosted a parliamentary meeting with ministers and visited Sightsavers projects in Pakistan.

Neil Thorns, head of communications at Sightsavers, says: "Celia's influence lies in strengthening our advocacy work by helping us reach those who can help us in our campaign for education for all."

So which MPs are the best to approach? Cresswell advises charities to target those with a personal connection to a particular cause.

"They have to be able to speak with authority and really know the facts," she says. "Lembit does that, but he also speaks with real emotional resonance."

But Broach disagrees. "If you target only MPs who have some sort of personal connection, then you could be missing out on some potentially very powerful advocates," he says. "Personal experience is not the only thing that motivates them.

"MPs get frustrated with their roles, so if you give them an opportunity to really change something, it's likely to interest them. You have to make your arguments convincing and show that you have researched what is achievable."

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