NEWS IN FOCUS: Is silence the price of public cash? - Many charities want to balance service provision with campaigning. So what's stopping them being heard, asks Julie Pybus


Two-thirds of large charities now describe themselves as exclusively or predominantly service providers, according to a survey of voluntary organisations with annual incomes of more than £1 million. But more than half of them want to increase their campaigning role, creating an even balance between service provision and advocacy.

The main obstacle is the cost, in time and money, according to 70 per cent of respondents to the survey, which was conducted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and Ashridge business school.

Many of the big charities have seen voluntary donations decline since the early 1990s.

Over the same period, they have increasingly been raising money through taking on government contracts. However, such contracts often have a sting in the tail. As local authorities and other clients have driven down costs, charities have been forced to use voluntary income to subsidise services that were originally paid for by the state. And that leaves less available for other activities.

Some charities also fear their campaigning could offend such major funders.

However, fewer than 10 per cent of the survey's 124 respondents said this was the case and, the authors argue, this counters the myth that engaging with government restricts freedom of advocacy.

But there have been warnings. Last summer, it was claimed that Louise Casey threatened to withdraw government funding from homelessness charities that spoke out against the Government's controversial Change a Life campaign. The Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) later denied this had happened, but the fear is still there. Last December, a group of homelessness workers chose to issue a press release condemning the RSU through their trade union rather than speak out through their charity.

And even those charities that do feel confident enough to campaign against their funders may prefer to keep such lobbying low key. Neil Churchill, director of communications and marketing at Age Concern, says: "If a charity has a large amount of public funding, there is a tendency to lobby in private and not put ideas into the public domain for others to use, which is detrimental to debate."

It is easy to conclude that the campaigning side of voluntary organisations faces a bleak future. In the words of Lord Dahrendorf, in the Charities Aid Foundation's Arnold Goodman lecture last summer, charities could become little more than "quagos" - quasi-governmental organisations.

But the survey respondents were remarkably upbeat about their futures.

Nearly three quarters believed they would be more successful in influencing the public and Government over the next five years. Campbell Robb, the NCVO's director of public policy and co-author of the survey, thinks that the increasingly voluntary-sector-friendly political agenda and a levelling off in the decline in voluntary income could be factors in making these organisations feel more confident.

And if these charities do campaign more, Churchill argues that they could be very effective. He says: "It is a good idea for charities to use the experience they have in running services in advocacy because it really grounds that work. Charities without the grounding in service provision have more academic, less informed campaigns. At Age Concern, we get 250,000 calls each year on our helpline, so we really know the problems that older people face."

A key to the future may be held by the Treasury, which is conducting a review of best practice for service contracts between the Government and the voluntary sector. The sector wants core costs, such as office overheads incurred in running such contracts, to be covered. If this happens, organisations may have more time and money to pursue other activities.

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