Myths and misconceptions about charities and lobbying

The debate about charities and campaigning is not new, and articles on the subject tend to pop up in the mainstream press with alarming frequency these days. The latest installment comes in the form of a report from the Institute for Economic Affairs entitled

‘Sock puppets: How the Government lobbies itself and why’.

The report argues that government funding of campaigning subverts democracy and debases the concept of charity. The author Christopher Snowdon says that by funding charities that seek to influence government policy, the government is effectively lobbying itself as well as lobbying voters.

However Snowdon’s analysis (as well as a number of others who have written on similar theme) is based on a number of misconceptions about charity, or campaigning, or both.

At NCVO it’s our job to correct these misconceptions and to challenge them where we can but they are worth exploring in greater detail.

1)     Charities that take money from the state aren’t proper charities

If I had a pound for every time I’d heard this old chestnut! A charity is a charity regardless of its funding arrangements with the Government. Does anybody say that businesses that have contracts with the Government aren’t ‘real’ businesses?

Charities get funding from a wide range of sources and just over a third of their total income comes from the state. In reality, it could be said that the state heavily depends on charities to provide services that it can’t deliver itself.

2)     Lobbying isn’t a legitimate activity for charities

Lobbying is the process of trying to influence the public policy process. It is a legitimate activity central to the work of many charities.  The analogy we often use at NCVO is why would a charity continue to pick up bodies at the bottom of a cliff when it can build a fence at the top. I genuinely believe that public policy is better for engaging with outside interests (be that business or charity) and a greater understanding of the world outside of Westminster!

It is also well understood and supported by the public; a recent poll showed that the vast majority think campaigning and lobbying is the most cost effective activity in which charities engage.

3)     The rules on charity lobbying aren’t strict enough

The Charity Commission’s rules on political activity allow organisations to lobby only when it supports their charitable objectives and when their trustees have seriously considered whether this is the best use of their resources. Charities cannot support a particular party or candidate and are subject to stricter restrictions during election periods.

The points above aside, I think the report does touch on some issues that we should be concerned about. The status of think tanks, the relationship between mission drift and austerity and the ethics of campaigning all warrant a free and frank debate. But before that can happen we need to stop thinking of service delivery and campaigns as being distinct activities and be confident about the role of charities to speak out and be critical of government. Independence remains at the heart of the charity sector and its ability to ‘bite the hand that feeds’ is one of its greatest strengths.

Chloe Stables’s blog

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Chloe Stables, External Relations Manager, reflects on the latest political developments affecting the voluntary and community sector.

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