Other sectors want charities to ‘speak up’ in public debates, report says

20 Feb 2023 News

Public and private sector leaders want charity chief executives to become more vocal in public debates, according to a new report by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK).

Other sector leaders want charity CEOs to “bring their unique perspective to important issues” by speaking out on topical agendas, not just “their core issue”, it said.

The report, published today for the Charity Reform Group (CRG), said there was “a clear gap for civil society” to “join the dots” on disparate policy initiatives.

It said currently charity leaders were underrepresented on current affairs programmes like Question Time, Peston, and the Andrew Marr Show, with just 2% of guests from civil society, compared to 10% from academia and journalism and 4% from business.

‘People outside the sector want charity CEOs to speak up’

The report’s findings are based on a series of conversations between charity CEOs and leaders from the public sector, politics, media, business, and wider civil society held last year under Chatham House rules.

The report states the resounding message that came through “is that people outside the sector want charity CEOs to speak up and be heard”.

It adds that some talked about charities having good visibility during the pandemic and felt that now, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, there was even greater public appetite for charities to use their platform.

SMK’s report also noted that a common criticism of both government and opposition is a lack of vision for change to connect up disparate policy initiatives, and “this leaves a clear gap for civil society to join the dots on different issues in public debate”.

Sue Tibballs, SMK chief executive, said: “Trying to read the zeitgeist from social media and think tank reports might tempt charity leaders to conclude that people are not ready for a bolder, more visionary tone. 

“Our discussions revealed quite the opposite – that, if more charities put their heads above the parapet, they are likely to be pleasantly surprised by the unusual allies they find.”   

Charities can be perceived as ‘straying into politics’

The report also states some talked about charity sector leaders being seen as single-issue specialists, whereas business leaders are assumed to be entitled to have a wider voice beyond their core business. 

“It was also recognised, however, that when charities speak beyond their immediate issue, it can be perceived as ‘straying into politics’,” the report adds.

SMK suggests “this gets to an absolutely central challenge” which is the tension between those wanting charities to speak across a range of social concerns and the countervailing pressure on charity sector leaders to stick to their core issues.

“Some were also keenly aware of the so-called ‘culture wars’ and how charities are being used as ammunition – though they are not the only institutions affected,” it adds.

Many were also aware of “government's reluctance to engage” and that charities and wider civil society, particularly in England, “are operating in a difficult and, at times, hostile environment”.

Operating with a coherent voice 

The report adds that a strong theme in conversations was the absence of a strong collective voice for the sector as a whole. 

Meanwhile, when the sector does speak up, it can be perceived to be too defensive and spend too much energy justifying itself.

Membership of the CRG group currently include:

  • Halima Begum, Runnymede Trust
  • Craig Bennett, Wildlife Trusts
  • Susan Daniels, National Deaf Children’s Society
  • Matt Downie, Crisis
  • Sarah Hughes, MIND
  • Edel Harris, Mencap
  • Tim Naor Hilton, Refugee Action 
  • Polly Neate, Shelter
  • Tessy Ojo, The Diana Award
  • Harriet Oppenheimer, RNID
  • Chris Sherwood, RSPCA

The opening panel debate at Trustee Exchange is on the role of trustee boards in enabling charity chief executives to speak out, and Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation will be chair.

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