Charities have become marginalised in social and political debates because even though they might have the solutions to problems the sector is too fragmented to make an impact at the top of government, Rob Wilson said yesterday.
Wilson, who was the minister for civil society until June 2017, was speaking at NCVO’s Campaigning Conference where he said that neither the government nor the opposition was really listening to charity voices and that part of the reason that he believes the charity sector is struggling to get its messages across is because it is too fragmented.
“It is a long time since civil society has had the confidence and the voice to properly and powerfully articulate itself as having, at least in part, the answer to many of society’s most pressing problems,” he told delegates.
He said that the last time there were “big ideas” was in 2009 with the Big Society, which led to the growth of social enterprises
But, he said, charities did not engage with the austerity agenda, because it was seen as an “existential threat to the sector rather than a powerful opportunity to move the terms of debate onto your ground”.
Politicians aren’t listening
Wilson said neither the government nor the opposition is really listening to charities. He said that the focus on the right of politics is on reforming capitalism and on the left it is about refinancing public services, which leaves little space for the charity sector.
“We have the right returning to a highly interventionist managed markets approach and the left to big state solutions,” he said, which suggests that charities failed to “step into the funding gap opened by state withdrawal and provide the innovation and the transformational services at scale”.
But he said this should not be the case because the sector is “full of vibrant and entrepreneurial ideas that can offer an at-scale solution to many of the most pressing public policy issues of the day”.
Wilson said that part of the reason that charities were not being heard is that the sector does not have a clear voice.
“It is often fragmented,” he said and that “the sector rarely speaks with a single consistent voice and therefore isn’t able to capture the national mood”.
He urged the sector to “take a fresh look at the problems that confront the UK, especially post-Brexit, and to ask what civil society needs to do to be equal to the huge challenges it needs to confront”.
During the discussion afterwards, Wilson said that changes to how the state funds charities was “not an excuse” for fragmentation in the sector.
He said the sector needs to have some difficult conversations internally. He noted that “overall the sector is better financed than probably it’s ever been,” but that “money is going largely to big charities and nobody in the sector is saying 'where’s our fair share', 'why can’t we have more of this money'”.
Wilson added that some of the practices of larger charities had been “shown to be deficient” so the sector needs to “take on and look at some of these things in a bit more detail rather than reflecting it away from the sector”.
He said he was not targeting charities, but that all sectors need “disrupting” because “change is constant”.
Tips for campaigning
Wilson also spoke about how some charities’ confrontational campaigning had created problems in the past and offered seven tips for charities considering thsi type of campaigning.
- Have a strong evidence base
- At the start, try not to be negative about government. Hold discussions with before hand “and don’t start swinging punches before you’ve given a few warning jabs. Government hates surprises.”
- Use language that is “measured and temperate”.
- Avoid the “appearance of political partisanship in your campaigning”.
- Listen to people who have done something similar before “and seek out opinion formers and independent third parties, who may be able to influence on your behalf”.
- Be aware of the wider political situation for example he said “a weak government might wish to avoid rows and do deals behind the scenes. Once things are public, positions quickly solidify”.
- “Most of all please think and rethink before you act”.