Rob Abercrombie: Charities are losing the culture war. Here is how we can win

20 May 2021 Voices

Charities are in a culture war, whether they want to be or not. Rob Abercrombie from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, offers three tips on how to fight it

The culture wars are here and charities can’t ignore them.

The alleged offences of the National Trust in The Times and Telegraph. Attacks on Unicef for feeding children, sniping that Marcus Rashford should know his place, Baroness Stowell’s speeches. This random list could go on.

The point is that culture wars are back with a vengeance, and charities are in the firing line – unwilling combatants though we may be.

‘Us versus them’

It’s horribly divisive. The culture war contributes to a sense of us versus them, and charities are definitely in the ‘them’ camp. 

It is not great for our standing with the public. The narrative – in which a liberal woke elite are seeking to undermine a fabled British way of life – creates a sense of threat for its audience. It thrills as well as scares. 

This stuff is not new. And it’s not just Conservative governments that have had uncomfortable relationships with charities. Labour’s sometimes statist instincts can lead to suspicion of the sector, and that can be a problem too. 

Picking fights

Nonetheless, we are seeing renewed energy devoted to picking a fight with us. It does not feel good. 

Importantly, it is also a missed opportunity for government. 

Civil society can help governments make better policy and, through providing a check and balance on power, strengthen democracy. Confident governments see that, but ours is thin-skinned.


The culture war distracts from the real causes of inequality, it distracts from tough questions about where power and privilege lie and uncomfortable truths about its history, and it saps legitimacy from those seeking to hold the powerful to account. 

It is sleight of hand to divert us from the truth about power, and in whose interests the ruling classes exercise it. 

This is the real agenda. And because there’s a pay-off it will keep happening until the pay-off stops.

Here, then, are three tips for responding.

1. We need to adjust our attitude

In any relationship you have to take responsibility for your own contribution. We have some control over how we behave, and if we behave differently that will influence how others behave towards us.

Our sector has always had a tendency to see government, local and central, as the problem. That’s often been true. But defaulting to an adversarial position represents a failure of empathy with and understanding about what it’s like to run a council or try to operate in parliament.  

Of course there are exceptions, but I’m not convinced as a sector we’re great at building relationships even when it’s in our interests. 

There’s the rumour that Baroness Stowell felt treated rudely and with suspicion from the off. As a sector, maybe we didn’t welcome her appointment but a charm offensive does no harm. There may be a moral purity in remaining aloof but it’s engagement that gets things done. 

For example, we heard plenty from Oliver Dowden ahead of his meeting with heritage groups last year. The implication being he would give them a jolly good talking to. I note we’ve heard precious little since. What’s the betting that, confronted by a room full of respectful, sensible professionals who know their business, the conversation was a perfectly polite one? 

There are also still many areas of genuine over-lapping interest. If you run a major domestic violence charity you get nice letters from Priti Patel. There’s a levelling up agenda the government needs help with. And there are plenty of politicians in the Tory ranks, from Baroness Barran, through William Hague, to Danny Kruger, with whom it’s perfectly possible to have a reasonable conversation without needing to agree on everything. 

We must engage constructively where we can.

2. Address our collective weakness

Why is our sector such fertile territory to wage the culture war on? 

There’s a danger we end up in the worst of all worlds. We haven’t been able to stay above the fray and sit pretty on the high moral ground. This isn’t viable because unchecked misinformation damages the sector’s reputation, but also because our claim to the high moral ground is weak. 

But neither are we getting stuck in and scoring points.  

This brings me to something that’s difficult for us to acknowledge. The truth is, this isn’t all someone else’s fault. 

We have developed a habit of gifting our critics sticks to beat us with. Bullying and sexual harassment scandals, institutional and overt racism, a safeguarding controversy and, before that, a fundraising one. 

We’ve also got a bad habit of getting out the begging bowl with one hand whilst giving government two-fingers with the other. It comes over like special pleading. It’s not a good look. 

These things undermine our claim to the high moral ground. They leave us in a weak position. We need to get our own houses in order. Until we do, the sector will continue to be a soft target. 

3. Make it about the substance

I have saved the most important point to last. 

The culture war thrives on myth and insinuation. It begins to lose its power when dealing with the substance. We need to engage on the issues we know and care about. 

Look at the struggle there was to respond to Marcus Rashford’s campaign. It can be proven that children are going hungry in a rich country; that this is not fair; and that we need to do something about it. When conveyed by someone with the legitimacy of lived experience there was just no way of spinning that message away.  

Campaigning has a proud history of making Britain a better place and we cannot let ourselves be put off from it. The extent to which the sector has been co-opted into public-service markets may have weakened our reforming role, but we need to leave behind strategies that blunt our reforming edge. 

Let’s pursue our missions with vigour. Speak inconvenient truths without fear. 

These things may provoke further attacks but, when we act authentically and with conviction, those attacks start to look shrill. 

There is a culture war going on whether we like it or not. But it is not hopeless and we are not powerless. 

The charity sector can make itself a harder target, and that starts with reconnecting to our reforming mission.

Rob Abercrombie is deputy chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.



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