Hot Issue: Is self-censorship a major threat to the independence of charities?

Graham Benfield of the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action, and former charity commissioner Julia Unwin, argued last week that charities should be less fearful and more inclined to speak out.

NO - David Chater, public affairs manager, Turning Point

Or at least, it shouldn't be. Turning Point has developed a powerful campaigning voice, despite the fact that 98 per cent of our funding comes from statutory sources. As a sector, we need to be able to work with statutory funders on different levels. On the one hand we deliver effective, efficient and accountable services and, on the other, we need to be able to have frank discussions about the virtues or otherwise of specific policies.

That said, campaigning should not be conflated with media coverage. Depending on your objectives, it may be far more effective to meet face to face with policy makers than to berate them in the press. Or, to put it another way, it's better to be sitting at the table discussing the issues than standing outside the gates shouting about them.

But that decision should be made purely by what the most effective approach will be. Are you trying to refine a particular aspect of a new Bill, or are you trying to instigate a massive policy shift? I have never been held back from campaigning on an issue because of funding considerations.

I'm just as vocal at Turning Point as I was when I worked at Crisis, which, at the time, received almost all of its funding from voluntary donations.

YES - Stephen Maxwell, associate director, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

Dependence on state funding does create a pressure for self-censorship.

As the number of charitable service providers increases in a mixed economy of service provision, no doubt some organisations, particularly among the newcomers, will define themselves exclusively as service providers and reject charities' traditional vocation of public advocacy and campaigning.

But the record suggests that most service-providing charities are capable of resisting the reflex for self-censorship. The critical factor is the strength of the commitment of trustees and senior managers to their charity's role as a public advocate.

The guarantees of charity independence contained in the national Compacts and the new appreciation by the Government of the ways in which voluntary organisations add value as part of civil society should encourage charities to speak out.

For some charities, being seduced into membership of an inner circle of government policy-making may prove a bigger threat to their public role than financial dependence itself.

YES - Seamus McAleavey, chief executive, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action

Self-censorship is always a danger, and unfortunately, it can grow like a cancer in organisations. Is the organisation tame or self-serving? Does self come first, before the cause? Maybe, but it's rarely a black and white scenario.

Nicva strives to influence government and, therefore, balances what it says and does. At times, we bite our tongue. I wouldn't call that self-censorship, but sound judgment. Over the years, many of our members have asked us to speak out for them when they felt they could not for fear of jeopardising their funding. That is part of our job as their representative body. Their fears were real and, in my experience, it is not uncommon for government and other funders to make a link between unwanted criticism and funding. The inference is clear, even if the threat most often will never be realised.

Organisations should not get a reputation as serial carpers or whingers - that is counterproductive. They should ask themselves about the issues that are central to their cause - which comes first, their principles, the cause or their organisation? Whose interests do they really serve? Only then should they decide to speak.

NO - Adam Sampson, director, Shelter

Shelter proves that it is possible for charities to provide frontline services as well as comment on and criticise government policy actively.

Funding, whether public or private, is not just a means to an end. It is a vindication of a charity's beliefs and objectives.

Shelter helps 100,000 people a year fight for their rights, get back on their feet, and find and keep a home. We also tackle the root causes of Britain's housing crisis by campaigning for new laws, policies and solutions. Recently, Shelter has worked successfully and closely with both government and opposition parties to implement changes to the new Housing Act.

At the same time, we are raising public awareness of the devastating impact of bad housing. Shelter combines both strong media coverage and public awareness with effective high-level lobbying to achieve real improvements in people's lives. These are not mutually exclusive they work in tandem to promote our aims.

Public funding is not a bribe. It is recognition of the importance of the services provided. A charity that fails to address its beneficiaries' needs actively, and instead bows to perceived pressure, will fail in its mission.

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