Interview: Mike Schwarz

The new chair of trustees at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation says campaigners are a force for good and need strong support

Mike Schwarz
Mike Schwarz

To some, there is little difference between lobbyists and campaigners, but Mike Schwarz, the new chair of trustees at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which supports campaigners, argues that there are crucial distinctions between the two.

Schwarz, who is a partner at Bindmans, the law firm specialising in human rights, says that both groups seek to influence decision-makers, but most campaigners are working to provide benefit to the public.

"That is what distinguishes them from lobbyists, whose constituencies are often businesses or organisations that are flush with money and acting out of self-interest," says Schwarz.

"At the heart of it, the difference is not so much the process or structure of the organisations, but more the substance of what they are campaigning or lobbying for.

"Campaigners act collectively through altruism to effect change and promote the interests of others, who often don't have a voice, and have limited resources or access to the levers of power or influence. Lobbyists, in contrast, work in the shadows for well-funded paymasters, often to preserve the way things are for individual vested interests."

Schwarz contends that the distinction between the two activities is important in a number of ways. He cites the government proposal for a register of lobbyists as an example.

"This proposal was thrown up by problems with lobbyists, such as issues about access and 'revolving doors'," he says. "But caught up in that are campaigners, charities and NGOs that do not try to influence government for reasons of self-interest. They are instead trying to support marginalised and vulnerable communities to gain vital support and achieve social justice."

Schwarz says the limited resources available to campaigners and the constituencies they serve are under threat, whereas lobbyists do not face this problem.

"This means that there isn't a level playing field between lobbyists and campaigners," says Schwarz. "It would be good for society if we could level that field and make grass-roots campaigners, activists and charities as effective at influencing as the corporate lobbyists are."

Practical assistance

Schwarz is hoping that the Sheila McKechnie Foundation will be able to continue to provide some of the services needed to make this happen. He is replacing Lyndall Stein, who has held the role of chair for the past four years.

"We are going to try to do more of the same: to provide practical assistance to campaigners, as well as moral support," he says. "We are going to focus on grass-roots and small campaigners who don't have standing or tradition, so that they can prosper in the future."

Schwarz says that, despite the barriers campaigners are facing, the foundation still sees people on the ground taking action and speaking up on issues that matter to them.

He says: "In this vibrant and changing environment, campaigners need energetic, focused and responsive support, which we will aim to provide."

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