Russell Hargrave looks at mistakes charities might be making when it comes to campaigning, and how they might improve.
“The real problem about power is not that it’s corrupting,” argues Matthew Bolton in his book How to Resist, “but that it is so unevenly distributed.” When charities campaign they are, in the main, trying to guarantee precisely this sort of power redistribution, so that the powerless and disadvantaged are not forgotten.
And these days charities can’t stop talking about campaigning. Get a fair selection of voluntary sector staff together in a room and that is where the discussion invariably leads.
Questions about charities’ right to campaign, whether that means influencing public opinion or directly lobbying government, have been given extra urgency since the introduction of the Lobbying Act, or Gagging Bill as it was swiftly re-christened in the sector.
The Act, which restricts what voluntary organisations can say and do in the run up to elections, is unwelcome “primarily because of the climate that it creates” in discouraging charities from speaking out, argues Karl Wilding, the director of public policy and volunteering at NCVO.
Unsurprisingly, it has led charities to protest about their right to campaign. More than one hundred and twenty organisations wrote jointly to the government over the summer when ministers rejected proposed reforms to soften the impact of the act.
Trying to answer the wrong question
The urgency is welcome. But there is also a risk that this controversy has sent charities scurrying to try and answer the wrong question, and put their resources in the wrong place.
Fighting for the right to campaign as freely as possible is one thing, but we also need to ask whether charity campaigns actually achieve as much as they should.
“There are some really good examples where campaigning has made a difference,” says Wilding, pointing out the role that charities have had in successful, high-profile campaigns to reduce smoking and promote equal marriage.
But he also believes that organisations could be much more effective. There is sometimes too little focus on the nuts and bolts of how a campaign is supposed to work, Wilding argues, “in terms of how the actions you take lead to the changes you want to see.”
This may be because charities are under such pressure – with grassroot groups and private companies also sometimes pushing for social change, charities are trying to make themselves heard in a “very crowded” campaigning space – but sometimes it can seem like campaigns aren’t designed to win change at all.
“One of the common criticisms of campaigning that I have heard,” says Wilding, “is that campaigning is not about change, it is about brand positioning, or it is about fundraising.”
Charity policy expert Rachel Cable agrees that organisations don’t always get campaigning right. “I think charities are good at what they do”, she says, “but there is huge room for improvement.”
Cable, who has worked on local and international campaigns in south Wales, suggests that campaigns aren’t always well enough informed by the facts on the ground.
“Many charities have experience of working on the coalface, but that experience isn’t then translated back into policy,” she said.
And Cable also worries that campaigns are sometimes set up with the wrong goals in mind. “There seems to be a slight obsession with doing very high-profile campaigning and getting social media [coverage] and that kind of stuff,” she argues, “whereas actually you come to understand that a lot of the real work is done through committees and behind the scenes. That’s not to say it is hidden in any way, but that is where the real work is done.”
How to improve
No one should despair just yet, though. Both have tips for making sure charity campaigning can up its game.
For Wilding, this would involve charities working together more, and drawing on the successful collective campaigns of the past.
“One might ask the question, Why aren’t there more collaborations?” he asks. “A bit like Make Poverty History, where it is the change that is at the forefront, and organisations are brave and bold enough to subvert their own brand in order [to support] the thing that they believe in.”
And when asking people to take an action or change their behaviour, charities should look at who is carrying their messages, and how it will sound to their intended audiences. Wilding references the Manchester charity Reclaim, whose recent campaign manifesto was written by the same local, working-class young people that the charity hoped to help. “It feels to me like, in the world we are in at the moment, you have a greater chance of success if you have authenticity, because this is the magic ingredient that everyone wants.”
Commentators like Ian Dunt, the editor of politics.co.uk, have raised similar concerns that charities have drifted too far from authenticity, and allowed themselves to sound far too corporate.
Cable, meanwhile, suggests that charities need to be more creative not just about how they sound but also about where they decide to lobby.
“There is no question in my mind that far, far too much lobbying effort is concentrated just in Westminster,” she says. “Of course, some things can only be dealt with at Westminster level, but as devolution continues charities have got to start looking at devolved areas. It’s got to be at a local level or it just doesn’t work.”
Speaking specifically about poverty campaigning, Cable emphasised the control that many devolved authorities now have over economic development, education and health, from Wales and Scotland to local authorities and the new metro mayors: “all of those things have an impact on poverty, so our work has to be there.”
Getting on with it
If charities are to run more effective campaigns they also need to be confident that they won’t run afoul of government rules, of course. But the risks are over-stated, according to Wilding. Even the Institute of Economic Affairs, which is so often antagonistic to the way charities fund their campaigning work, calls the Lobbying Act “heavy-handed and draconian.”
The future of campaigning? “We should just get on with it,” Wilding argues bullishly. “Seek forgiveness, not permission.”
And, one might add, never take your eyes off the change you are campaigning for.