As the general election campaign gathers pace over the coming weeks, it is vital that charities and other civil society organisations actively involve themselves with the campaign.
This engagement is core to their responsibility to their beneficiaries – as well as their duty to hold true to their missions.
Of course, it is not for charities to show bias towards or against individual political parties – but they can (and, I would argue, should) demonstrate an unequivocal bias to their values, their missions and the interests of their beneficiaries. This requires careful planning and self-control, but it should also mean stifling any innate sense of risk-aversion that would lead to sitting the campaign out (only to complain afterwards).
Frankly, there can be no "purdah" for charities and civil society.
The degree and nature of a charity’s intervention will be individual to each organisation, its culture and its mission. It will often also be determined by the evidence available to it and the confidence of its trustees and senior leaders.
To be clear – I am not advocating partisan political action over the coming weeks, or at any time, by the charity sector. This is very much about harnessing the voice that charities offer for their beneficiaries, communities (and, indeed, often for the voiceless and/or the most disadvantaged) at a local and national level. For many charities acting individually or collectively, this will merely be an extension of their continuous campaigning and representation activities. Accordingly, there should be no fear of exercising their voices in the next few weeks, or at any time.
A few weeks ago, the Church of England's House of Bishops published a pastoral letter aimed at politicians and the electorate. It did not seek to take sides in the partisan political debate. Rather, it sought to set out some important principles that should underpin contemporary politics and political action: social justice, fairness and inclusion; the positive case for addressing poverty and inequality; and the value of community rather than an ever-increasing emphasis on individualism. Surely there are few in the charity sector who would not share many of these principles.
For its part, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has issued a very strong wish-list as its manifesto. Still, I feel somewhat disappointed and perplexed that we are not hearing more from the sector’s leaders, speaking up and seeking to shape the political discourse, encouraging the various political parties and their spokespeople to address how they will achieve greater equality and pursue social justice.
Civil society – whether charities, faith groups, trade unions or others – all have an opportunity (and, in my opinion, a duty on behalf of those whom they represent) to speak out, seek to set the backdrop against which party policies can be evaluated and, in so doing, seek to influence these policies.
Every charity will have its own policy agenda that it will wish to pursue, and many will (I fervently hope) have been promoting these agendas, locally and nationally, over the last few years in the build-up to the general election campaign. These agendas will relate directly to mission and beneficiary-related interests, ranging from environmental causes through to rights for people with disabilities and beyond. And whatever the lobbying act might suggest, these are legitimate matters and actions for charities.
In addition to these beneficiary-related issues, charities and their collective bodies, at both local and national level, should be challenging the parties and individual constituency candidates on charity sector-related issues: the need to repeal the lobbying act; the review and reform of charity law and regulation; the promotion of grants instead of competitive tendering; improving public service commissioning and procurement to place greater emphasis on collaboration rather than competition for the voluntary and community sector; strengthening communities and their resilience as part of wider growth strategies; enhancing the social value act; recognising the sector’s voice and representative role and enshrining this in policy development; and investing in national and local representative, sector-owned infrastructure and capacity-building.
In addition, the sector has much to offer to the debates on policies such as social and community inclusion, the prevention of extremism, localism, long-term health and social prevention programmes and much more. The charity sector should be ready and willing to speak out on the limits of markets and marketisation and in favour of society and community.
At the local level, charities can easily seek to demonstrate their impact to parliamentary candidates and introduce the latter to their beneficiaries – provided this is done on an even-handed basis for all candidates.
Inevitably, the national and local voice of charities and wider civil society organisations will commonly find itself squeezed out by the media and politicians’ focus on other agendas. So be it – but this is absolutely no excuse for the sector not to seek to engage; rather, it is the very reason for doing so with vigour, confidence and deep conviction.
Get in there!
John Tizard is an independent strategic adviser, commentator and trustee. This blog first appeared in The Huffington Post