Joe Saxton: Criticism hurts, but we need to talk to our critics and be prepared to change our behaviour

Engagement and discussion are far better than firestorms, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

Since Easter, it can have escaped the notice of few people in the sector that there has been quite a lot of negative publicity. Rarely a week goes by without some newspaper or other having a go at some aspect of the sector.

One of the less noticed aspects of this summer of scrutiny is the role of politicians in driving the media coverage. From launching select committee enquiries to just making critical comments, politicians and the media make a formidable alliance. The media writes an article, politicians say how shocked they are and the basis of a follow-up article is formed.

Behind this lies a fundamental problem for the sector. We don't really have a home in any party's ideology. For the Conservatives, business makes the world go round and the state is a bad thing. For Labour, the state and workers make the world go round, and business is a bit suspect. On neither the left nor the right is the role of not-for-profit organisations central or even clear.

What this means in practice is that Labour is fairly happy with campaigning by the sector, but less so with the sector delivering public services. Conversely, the Tories don't like the sector to campaign, and quite like the sector delivering public services, although austerity now means there are fewer of those services than there used to be.

The key question is what we do about this situation. If nothing changes, the sector will be left wringing its hands about how terrible government is and going all misty-eyed about the good old days when government funds were plentiful, campaigning was our birthright and we felt we had a place in the bosom of government. And when we stop being misty-eyed, politicians and the media will still be giving us a kicking.

For me there are three things we need to do. First, the sector needs to have a vision for itself. We can't be surprised if other people are confused or even hostile about the role the sector plays, when the sector itself isn't sure. Part of the reason for this lack of vision is that our sector bodies are technocrats: they run this programme and that programme, rather than inspiring us with the big picture. In short, they have run out of ideas.

We need to talk to our critics. The righteous indignation when a politician tells us to stick to our knitting or a minister derides a charity for its activities is widespread. We might feel better after trashing their foolish views, but their opinions are probably not changed at all. Proactive engagement and discussion must be better than reactive firestorms, and for that reason we need to be prepared to amend our behaviour. Only the fundraising community has an active code of practice and operates self-regulation. What about having codes for chief executive salaries, trustee behaviour and campaigning?

We need to emphasise the importance of the sector. Listening to those who don't like what we do, it would be easy to believe the sector consists of a few campaigning or industrial-scale fundraising charities and nothing else. Overall, the not-for-profit sector does far more for almost every aspect of British life than it is given credit for. Those who don't like some aspects of the sector need to see that the parts they don't like are tiny blemishes, small pimples, on a large and very important body.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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