Charities’ ability to campaign is hampered because communications are too focused on fundraising, the chief executive of a major social change charity has said.
Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, writes in this month’s Charity Finance magazine that “mission-led campaigning is too often being obscured or impeded by fundraising goals.”
She also says that there are other major barriers.
“Charities are being deterred from campaigning publicly by excessive caution about the extent to which the law will allow them to campaign,” she writes.
“And an over-emphasis on evaluation and reporting is leading to an increased focus on short-term wins that can be tracked and measured.”
Fundraising dominates communications
She says that most charities focus most of their communications on fundraising, rather than “mission-led” campaigning.
“There is a tension here because the issues and ideas that might unlock donations are often not the same as those that might shift the needle socially or politically,” she writes. “In extremis, fundraising can even run counter to a charity’s actual aims.”
She highlights that NSPCC’s Full Stop campaign had raised a lot of money but the charity has concluded it risked giving the wrong impression about child abuse. And she says that fundraising campaigns portraying Africa as a place filled with malnourished children was “reinforcing a stereotype that is not helpful”.
“With aggressive fundraising tactics taking place alongside a shift to more behind-the-scenes lobbying and advocacy in campaign departments, you can end up in a position where a charity’s brand and profile is defined more by fundraising activity than core purpose,” she writes. “And in turn, this can affect the perception of the sector as a whole. Do we exist to make the world a better place? Or to sustain our sector and the salaries of our staff? You can see where the public cynicism starts to creep in.”
Too much focus on measurement
She also argues that an emphasis on measurement is causing campaigners to focus on campaigns which can easily be measured, rather than those which make the most difference.
“At SMK, we discern a bit of a rebellion brewing against the insistence on a level of measurement and reporting that just can’t be done,” she says. “Campaigners are clamouring for more freedom to operate, so that they can focus on significant, long-term change. Things like theories of change have become nooses around campaigners’ necks.”
‘Overreaction by trustees’
Finally she writes that while “the legal basis for charity campaigning has not substantially changed”, there has been an increase in fear which had dampened charities’ willingness to campaign.
“It does seem there has been something of an overreaction on the part of the sector,” she said, “led largely it seems by trustees, who are encouraged to be risk-averse at the best of times by charity governance models.”