Sue Tibballs: The problems we can turn into opportunities

Leaders need to be strong in the current environment and speak up for their beneficiaries, writes our columnist

Sue Tibballs
Sue Tibballs

"Every problem is also an opportunity", or so the quote goes. At the moment, change-makers face problems on many fronts.

Austerity is biting hard and its impact will ripple through generations. Funding for campaigning is thin on the ground, and state money is increasingly subject to gagging clauses. Government measures are discouraging charities from participating in political discourse, no matter how non-partisan their intent. And the lobbying act has created uncertainty about their very purpose.

So how can leaders address the dilemma that, when their beneficiaries most need them to speak out strongly, they feel stifled by the fear of regulatory punishment or loss of funding? Taking the saying to heart, what are the opportunities these problems could create?

Austerity affects us all

Charity supporters might not themselves be struggling with issues such as benefit changes or finding adequate social care, but many will notice the rise of food banks and the vicious narrative around vulnerable people in parts of the media. Lots of people are angry about lots of things. There is a huge opportunity to engage with them if organisations can find an authentic voice.

Gagging clauses

These have forced change-makers to justify why awareness-raising, policy influencing and behaviour change are so fundamental to their work. The government recently announced that any funding from the Tampon Tax Fund, intended to "improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls, including those who've been affected by violence", could not be used for campaigning, awareness-raising or advocacy. It has since conceded that some kinds of awareness-raising, not directed at policy change, will be permitted. In other words, it will fund services to help women and girls, but not to address weaknesses in the system that cause disadvantage or violence. Leaders should be explaining to their supporters why speaking out is so important.

Not campaigning is not an option

It might feel like an increasingly hostile environment, but it's worth revisiting the Charity Commission's CC9 guidance on campaigning, which says "campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake" in pursuit of their charitable purposes. Not only are organisational missions likely to allow campaigning, but they might demand it.

Lobbying act

Many say this has both chilled and softened the spines of the entire sector. It's shoddy law: its interpretation is vague and many boards view it as a risk-management nightmare. But it might be the biggest opportunity of all. If the government wants to make it hard for charities to campaign, could it be time to revisit your campaigning model? Not to stop making change, but to build the power of beneficiaries and supporters to create change for themselves. It's harder, it requires more effort, more and different resources, and it's not without its own risks. But the reward - helping people move from being perceived as victims to agents of change - couldn't be greater.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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