Steve Haines: Activism must be a major priority for charities in 2020

Instead of unilaterally deciding on campaigns and simply expecting people to support them, our campaigners want us to be partners and co-creators in this movement

The 2019 general election was a huge opportunity for the charity sector. It could and should have ushered in a new era of charity campaigning. We had an unprecedented ability to understand how people were engaging with us and the issues they cared about, and we had powerful digital tools ready to engage and support them.

But instead of grasping the opportunity, we pulled our punches. We played it safe. We rehashed the same old classics: single-issue “manifestos” and well-branded e-actions. We asked prospective parliamentary candidates to show their support, and they, hungry for any opportunity to gain more votes in their marginal seats, willingly obliged.

All this happened at a time when what our supporters really wanted was to share our values and be offered a place to take action on the issues that mattered to them. By doing everything the same way we always have, we missed the seismic shift happening around us.

While we were in coalition meetings, new movements formed around us, engaging and supporting fellow campaigners. The growth of the incredible grass-roots movement for disabled children and children with special educational needs, the Send Community Alliance, is a notable example.

While we churned out long policy reports and bemoaned the status quo in the media, opinions were being formed in closed WhatsApp groups and by passionate parents creating new networks in private Facebook groups.

While we were knocking on the door of Number 10, policy was being made in local communities by borough councils, clinical commissioning groups and PTAs, not just in think tanks and policy units.

This can’t continue. We need an approach to campaigning fit for the times we now live in. The Victorian model of charity has evolved a lot over the years, and it’s continuing to reinvent and reshape itself.

At the National Deaf Children’s Society, we’ve been speaking to parents and young people to find out what they want from us. We’ve discovered that the people who support and campaign for our causes are starting to think differently about what they want our role to be.

Rather than unilaterally deciding on campaigns ourselves and expecting people to support them, our campaigners want us to act as a partner and a co-creator. They want to draw on our evidence, expertise and budget to help them achieve what matters to them.

Meeting this challenge means turning our organisations inside out. We need to give individual campaigners the ability to direct our resources, taking a lesson from the incredible success of Greta Thunberg – or, in our case, Daniel Jillings, the 11-year-old boy who successfully campaigned for a GCSE in British Sign Language.

It means speaking out fearlessly, but being clever about when and how we choose to do so. It means letting go of control and giving people the tools to use for themselves. It means charities committing to campaigns that take on complex problems and require significant effort over the long term. And it also demands new charity legislation to give us the freedom to speak our minds and invest in the long term.

We have further to go and there is much more we need to do to gain the views of what every family needs, in every community and every circumstance. And we have to challenge our own enthusiasm for this new direction by making sure that our campaigning work isn’t just directed by the activists with means, the loudest voices and the most polished arguments. We need to work harder to support those who can’t fight for themselves because they’re working three jobs or they’re in a community that doesn’t want them to have a voice.

If we are to achieve real change, engage people and deliver for those we’re here to support, we cannot allow this opportunity to pass us by. We have to create an activism culture, and we have to start right now; millions of people are depending on us.

Steve Haines is director of campaigns at the National Deaf Children's Society

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