The right of charities and other voluntary sector organisations to campaign has been much discussed in the sector and on these pages in recent months. Many - including me - have complained about charities retreating from campaigning and have pointed the finger at the government and the Charity Commission for inducing a chilling effect. But new evidence from the first SMK Campaigner Survey suggests a more nuanced picture.
Of the 100 people we spoke to, more than 90 per cent agreed there were threats to campaigning. Clearly, there is a problem. Interestingly, however, "negative media coverage of the work of the VCSE sector" was cited as the main cause by 65 per cent, with "conditions of funding discouraging campaigning" in second place at 63 per cent. In third place at 53 per cent was "senior managers and trustees being more cautious about campaigning", followed closely by "guidance from the Charity Commission of England and Wales" at 52 per cent.
There are those in government and at the regulator who seem to have an anti-campaigning agenda, but there might also be a process of self-censorship going on. This is extremely disturbing. It is imperative that charities do campaign, and with real courage and determination. Indeed, 86 per cent of the respondents to our survey said they thought charities should be campaigning more, not less.
There are two problems here: one is that senior figures in charities might be over-estimating the risks. Legal and regulatory experts say there have not been substantial changes in the space to campaign. It does look as if there is some over-reaction to changes in law and regulation. Charities can still campaign.
The second problem is that reputation management by senior leaders is trumping judgements about principle. When organisations allow themselves to be led by concerns about reputation, rather than what they believe to be right, everything is at risk, not just funding.
One of charities' most valuable roles is to advocate on behalf of beneficiaries and evidence the impact of policy. They also help people understand and access government services and support, and can help build consensus around complex social problems. They also hold government to account and challenge injustice, so there is a tension. But this is inevitable and healthy. The government and the sector need each other and should work together in a mature partnership.
The moves by some in this government and the regulator to contract the space to campaign is wrong-headed. Sector leaders need to challenge them and reach out to others who have a less ideology-driven agenda. They need to champion campaigning both publicly and within their own organisations. The main thing our respondents felt could improve the campaigning environment was "more proactive media and communications work to keep the value of campaigning high on the agenda". Perhaps the most troubling statistic from our survey is that one in five respondents said their organisations were already campaigning less. This is not good. We need a positive assertion of the importance of campaigning from sector leaders, not a cautious retreat.
Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation