Matthew Sherrington: 'He's behind you!' For a campaign to have teeth, you have to call out the villain!

Charities suffer from being too nice, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

"He’s behind you!" Any toddler can spot and call out the naughty antics of the pantomime villain – the one whose behind-the-scenes machinations are the cause of chaos and the misfortune of our heroes.

Charities, on the other hand, often don’t seem to be able to. Campaign after campaign, in complaining fashion, they rail about this anger-inducing injustice or that hand-wringing problem and the need to do something about it. But they often baulk at pointing the finger, even if they know where to point.

Some things, of course, might seem simply unfair, the unlucky roll of life’s dice. Nevertheless, there’s always something you’re fighting against, someone who’s not doing all they could, someone who by deed or inaction is limiting your mission. CRUK has turned cancer into the baddest villain of them all and is a lot more forceful in its messaging as a result. Naming the villain tells you and everyone else who is responsible for the mess you’re dealing with: who has the power to decide whether to solve it, do nothing or even make it worse.

In my home town of Oxford there’s been a dramatic rise in homelessness and, with it, of rough-sleepers, because budget cuts have forced the closure of half the city’s hostel beds.

It was recently reported that there’s been a three-fold increase in malnutrition among the elderly. We’re not talking a bit of lost appetite, but documented cases of hospitalisation. Just this weekend evidence emerged that the government’s social care for the elderly is on the ropes, leaving vulnerable people with inadequate care and blocking up the NHS.

We’ve had the story of disabled kids and their families denied up to £20,000 worth of support over five years because of an administrative cock-up, which they won’t get back in full.

Just one of those things? Some villain made the decisions. It’s important to point that finger, not just wail at the state of the world.

And yet charities still feel constrained to speak out, content to carry on calmly dealing with the symptoms with sticking plasters. We’re scared of biting the hand that feeds. We undervalue our brand when it comes to corporate partnerships, whose ethics we might not examine too closely, while being grateful for the attention. We’re certainly frightened of speaking out when it comes to managing government grants and contracts.

At least the government has now made it clear it wants charities to speak up about their experience and learning, and hopefully the chilling effects of the lobbying bill will thaw when it is amended. We’ll see how that goes.

However, the problem isn’t just fear of speaking out. The trouble with the charity sector is that it’s just too bloody nice. We worry too much about causing offence, which means we pull our punches (if we’re willing to put the gloves on in the first place). We might hint at faint disapproval, or some corrective action we might like to see, but always behind a fixed, friendly grin.

Villains, on the other hand, aren’t nice. They are ruthless. They know what they want and what matters to their interests, whether commercial or political. And they’ll take your nice-ness, thanks very much, give you some warm words and a pat on the head for your good works, and then ignore you. Because they know they can, and they know you’ll let them.

The status quo favours the haves, of power and resources. Which is why the haves defend it, and why they get nasty when threatened, imagining everything is a zero-sum game where they’d better be a winner. "When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression," as the saying goes.

But as Frederick Douglass, freed slave and abolitionist said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." And if you’re in a fight, it’s important to be clear who the fight is with.

Matthew Sherrington (@m_sherrington) is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action

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