If we could roll back the clock, George?

The Charity Tax campaign is, without doubt, the most high profile campaign NCVO has engaged with during my time here. The experience of going to bed with your ears buzzing from the latest developments on Newsnight to waking up each morning listening to the dulcet tones of John Humphry’s talking about the same issue is one that will not leave me for some time.

Having spent just over four years at NCVO, much of my time has been spent working with campaigners, speaking to campaigners and listening to campaigners – and the importance of campaign evolution has well and truly been drummed into me. So here is a quick run-down of the strengths of the Give it back, George campaign, and an overview of some of the lessons we should take from it.

What did we do well?

  • Clear objective – Throughout the campaign we maintained a clear focus on our solution – a total exemption for charitable donations. Behind the scenes, of course we spent time considering the impact of the various compromise solutions but, publically, the message the Government received loud and clear was that any cap on tax reliefs would cause damage.
  • Clear targets – We knew that this decision was taken at the very top, and we knew to reverse it we had to stay focussed on the very top of government. Almost every step was designed to target the ‘quad’ (Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander) and the people they would be influenced by.
  • Partnership working – The campaign was led by a trio of organisations (NCVO, CAF and the Philanthropy Review) and we remain eternally grateful for all their energy and expertise. But we can’t forget we were supported to the hilt by a number of others – too many too mention who actively engaged their members or supporters and activated their political networks. Most crucially though, the campaign attracted a wide base of support – 3775 organisations and individuals came forward to support this campaign, from all quarters of the sector, and ultimately it was their combined diversity, legitimacy and voices that led to success.
  • Lightning fast reflexes (most of the time) – Press statements out, websites up and running, hashtags defined, logos designed, newsletters drafted, special advisers contacted and key messages readjusted. The pace of the campaign was relentless. Except when it wasn’t – when we all did our best to fire it up again.
  • Marvellous media management – Our colleagues at CAF led the charge in commissioning research which helped to keep the story alive. Together, CAF and NCVO operated an instant rebuttal service, using the campaign blog and twitter service as well as letters pages in the broadsheets to rebut claims about donations as tax avoidance and donations to allegedly illegitimate charities – both to journalists and beyond. As a result, the campaign secured in excess of 2,200 mentions in the media.
  • New technology – This campaign, in terms of social media, was a revelation for NCVO and I hope that we used it to our advantage. Support for the campaign grew to over 1000 organisations and individuals within 72 hours of launching the website and by the time the Chancellor announced his U-turn we’d had 46,584 views  on the website and approx. 3821 mentions on twitter. I was also really pleased with the visual identity of the campaign, with a little help NCVO’s in-house experts (Virpi and Matt) we were able to present a clean website, striking infographics and clear communications.
  • Luck – If I’m honest, we had a good dose of luck too. I, for one, certainly did not foresee the front page headlines this story would generate when we sat watching the budget. The combination of the pasty tax, the caravan tax and the charity tax made for political dynamite. Combine that with some bad briefing from the Government and the campaign took on a life of its own.

So, what could we have done better?

If I could roll the clock back, there are of course a range of things I might have done differently. There was, for instance, a lot of discussion about the name of the campaign and some people still question whether we were right to have such a personal focus on George Osborne.  I stand by that decision and it was great to see so many people join us on the #thanksgeorge hashtag when the Chancellor made his U-turn.

I’m also still disappointed that some people (who shall remain nameless @petedigger :-)) will always view this as the time the charity sector came out to defend the rich – in my mind this wasn’t about defending the rich but defending the ability of charities to provide vital services at a time when they are being hit by falling income, increased demand and rising costs. The key point, missed by most commentators in this debate, is that the money donated is given for public benefit and no private gain is taken by the donor.  But perhaps we could have done more to communicate this and the thinking behind the campaign – as the great Brian Lamb says the onus should always be on the communicator and not on those that are being communicated to.

If I’m brutally honest the one thing that really still irks me is this – that we had to campaign to save something we already had. But this is more common place now as austerity bites in the second half of the parliamentary term. But it would have been nice to say we took a step forward, rather than just preventing a step back.

In the end though I’m pretty sure that no campaign is perfect, and certainly not one that appears overnight and thrusts you into an intense and politically charged spotlight with no planning and very few resources. While there are things I would have changed, I’m pleased that we managed to roll with punches and that we now have an opportunity to learn from them.

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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