In recent years, it has become apparent that the line charities must tread – between speaking out on the issues for which they advocate and the interests of the government – is becoming increasingly fine.
The former, by default, is a necessity of both the inherent purpose of charities and Charity Commission requirements that charities should provide some sort of service “for the public benefit” that people should ordinarily receive as a social obligation, but for some reason is not normally available.
We have specific reasons for existing, and therefore specific demographics or causes on whose behalf we must campaign.
It is not surprising that charities’ interests and government interests often clash, but this should be a normal part of charities functioning.
If the government adequately addressed the interests of all of our beneficiaries, there would be no conflict – but there would also be no charities.
As non-governmental organisations, charities cannot acquiesce to every government demand or whim.
I am sure every charity employee will have their own examples of when they have had to challenge policies or politicians.
Jan Trust, for example, has experienced this most notably with our criticisms – shared by many others – of the Prevent counterterrorism strategy.
We were hardly the first or most prominent sceptic of Prevent, and have not expressed any novel or “unusual” views that others have not expressed.
These widely shared critiques include demands for increased transparency, Islamophobic implications, extremely low success rates, and highly questionable referrals and referral processes.
However, as a charity the government has much more it can hold over us, and many more ways in which it can express its displeasure and try to silence us.
Such measures, in response to legitimate concerns and requests for open discussions, have included being shut out by the government (and politicians and civil servants advised not to meet me) and funding being withdrawn.
The most notable example of this is taking away funding for our pioneering Web GuardiansTM programme, initially delivered with Prevent, that educates and empowers mothers to protect their families and communities from online dangers like radicalisation and gang violence.
On a personal level, aside from, in essence, becoming persona non grata, I have been subjected to gaslighting, abuse, and false statements being made against my character and personal experiences by individuals in the government.
Civil servants have also tried to silence my voice from the critiquing government policies.
A confrontation that attracted heavy media interest recently was the “controversy” regarding the white privilege blog by Barnardo’s, which received a pronounced backlash from a group of Conservative MPs – who had expressed similar disgust with the National Trust for re-evaluating its connections with slavery.
The group reported both organisations to the Charity Commission.
As Barnardo’s responded at the time, white privilege is currently a highly salient topic of debate, and stating its existence in no way seeks to rewrite history or otherwise disparage the UK; if anything, debates about white privilege seek to correct the heavily “white” version of British history.
Aside from the fact that taking such extreme measures only serves to further attract publicity for issues that they would rather not discuss, such reactions from the government and its political party show an expectation by the political elite that charitable organisations should quietly “fall in line”.
It does not take a genius to figure out why this view is both hubristic and unrealistic.
As with the Barnardo’s backlash, charities and our supporters must stand up for each other; when one of us is allowed to be silenced, all of us are being silenced and diminished.
Charities exist to provide service for, and draw attention to, issues that do not generally attract much public or political attention.
Even the term “charity” connotes a sense of caring for others for the inherent purpose of making a positive difference.
This is incompatible with maintaining a political agenda that often conflicts with our beneficiaries’ best interests.
It is unsustainable, and reflects terribly upon the government for it to lash out against any charity with which it disagrees on matters of policy.
We can disagree, but there are mature and productive methods of disagreement.
Without the ability to speak up on the issues that matter, charities become just another government agency or public service provider.
Sajda Mughal is chief executive of the Jan Trust