What affects charity campaigning?

Charlotte Stuffins blogs about policy. Charlotte no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

What have we been doing? NCVO’s policy team works to help charities and voluntary organisations understand and correctly interpret charity law and regulation. The Charity Commission is the regulatory body of registered for charities in England and Wales and provides guidance for charities on how to abide by this regulation.

In 2007 the Advisory Group on Campaigning and the Voluntary Sector highlighted confusion around the wording of the guidance on Charity Campaigning (CC9 Guidance on Campaigning and Political Activity by Charities). The group, which is chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and is comprised of many voluntary organisations including NCVO, sought to address many of the legal and regulatory restrictions surrounding campaigning. In response, in 2008 the Commission released new guidance on CC9 with softened language, due to criticism of its tough approach to campaigning guidelines. It was hoped that this would help reduce barriers around confidence to campaigning for charities. Although there was no change in the law, the revised guidance gives charities that want to campaign greater confidence and clearer advice on the law. Here at NCVO we endeavoured to find out if charities were aware of the changes to the Commission’s guidance, and if they were, had the repeated reissuance of guidance provoked any confusion or anxiety in the sector? In particular, we were interested to find out whether small to medium sized charities had been put off or encouraged to campaign by the guidance.

In order to measure this impact, we asked charity trustees to fill out an online survey, to which we received 350 responses.

What is campaigning? We found that there was some confusion amongst respondents over what campaigning actually entails. It is perhaps useful here to mention how NCVO defines campaigning.

Essentially, campaigning is an activity that aims to create change. Confusion can often occur when such a practice is referred to under a stream of different names such as influencing, advocacy and voice.

Campaigning is the ‘mobilising of forces’ by organisations or individuals to influence others in order to effect social, economic or political change. Whatever you call it and whether you are trying to save a local community centre from closing or lobbying central government; campaigning is about creating a change. The impact is the real change created by a campaign – the difference it makes to people’s lives.

What did we find out? The survey results showed us that 65.6% of respondents said that they do currently campaign and 38% of respondents spoke of a positive attitude to campaigning.  One trustee suggested that:

“Charities must be encouraged to campaign, as it’s vital to the development of any services that they provide”.

This attitude appears to be fairly (but by no means completely) widespread, but perhaps the most interesting findings for this study were those that indicated whether the general principles of the guidance had been understood, and furthermore; whether the revised guidance is perceived to be an improvement.

We found that:

  • 98% of respondents felt that the Commission’s guidance indicated that campaigning is both legitimate and valuable for charities;
  • 86% understood that campaigning needn’t be related to a charity’s charitable purpose;
  • 85.7% of charities understood that the guidance states that they can campaign for a change in the law and;
  • 71.1% knew that they could support specific policies advocated by political parties, thanks to the guidance.

One respondent went as far to suggest that:

“If a charity is not political in a wider sense then there is little reason for it to exist. Our staff are political and believe that taking no stance is an acceptance of what its there at present”.

Yet interestingly, 6.6% of respondents believed that the Commission thinks charities should not campaign, with some stating that:

“Our charity is non judgemental and we do not campaign”

“We are paid to deliver a totally impartial service, not to take sides or support a particular agenda”.

What conclusions can we draw? To perhaps optimistically summarise, it would appear that the simplification of the Commission’s guidance on campaigning has been generally understood in the sector and that when questioned, the majority of trustees do know what types of activity they are able to undertake. Yet, as we suspected, small to medium sized charities tended not to have the time or resources to read the guidance, let alone differentiate between its varying versions. Some respondents said:

“For trustees of very small charities it is harder to find the time to keep up-to-date on all issues and to know how to mount a campaign and where it would be most effective”.

“As a trustee, I do not have endless time to devote to reading complicated documents on the off chance we will need that knowledge”.

What is more, there were numerous comments on the costly and time consuming process of campaigning, which tended to adversely affect the number of organisations that engaged in such a vital activity. Interestingly, however, research has shown that campaigning doesn’t need to take up a lot of time and can actually be an effective use of limited resources.

Yet there was a high level of confusion surrounding the campaigning terminology, and the panic it appeared to evoke in more conservative and cautious trustees is cause for concern:

“We prefer not to as the majority of our board are very conservative in their outlook and not very forward thinking”.

What is next? With the publication of the Public Services White Paper looming, there is a feeling in the sector that an increasing number of charities will start to focus on (or increase their current levels of) public service deliverance. Indeed, the National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises reported today that 31% of charities listed public service delivery as one of their roles in 2010, compared with only 20% in 2008. The seemingly continuous hum of overstretched resources and a disproportionate focus on service delivery was also a common theme amongst responses, which are captured well by the following statements:

“We seek to actively balance campaigning with service provision, but the development of the latter over the past few years has led to us doing less campaigning”.

“As a service provider who feels that campaigning is important, we find it almost impossible to raise funding that we could use for campaigning”.

However, perhaps most worrying of all was the following statement by one trustee, which not only illustrates the dominance of statutory funding for their organisation, but also shows how such funding influences and dissuades the charity from independently campaigning:

“Almost 100% of our funding comes from statutory services and it was decided long ago to work with our funders and not campaign against them”.

In light of this shifting role of many charities, it is vital that their campaigning work is not adversely affected. NCVO welcomed the reissuance of the CC’s guidance on charity campaigning, but it can only be seen as a starting point to encourage charities to get their voices heard and fully understand that campaigning is integral to their charitable status.

It is worth noting, however, that campaigning and providing services can sit well together as long as there is careful and active management of such activities. In fact, according to a recent study, organisations that both provide services and campaign are more effective at achieving change than those who only undertake one of these activities. Far from being mutually exclusive, the two activities can support each other. For example, feedback from service users can strengthen campaigning work.

NCVO recently produced the Trustee Guide to Campaigning, which outlines what is required by the law and what is deemed to be good practice. It has been our most popular campaigning guide to date, with over 3000 free hard copies distributed and many more being downloaded from our website. This perhaps is a good indicator that the importance of campaigning is still prevalent amongst trustees and that there is a real desire in the sector to get it right.

Charlotte Stuffins

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