The 2015 Project: Neuroscience and voluntary action-why we should all be campaigners

This blog post is part of The 2015 Project – your chance to tell NCVO what our policy priorities should be.

Modern neuroscience suggests that we are predominantly non-violent and cooperative because we have the ability to empathise.  When we see others in pain, the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are activated, the same regions of the brain that are used when we feel pain ourselves. We literally feel their pain. Further we feel the pain much more acutely when a member of our own family or community is hurt.

So scientific proof, at last, of the foundations for voluntary action. But how far should that action go? While voluntary action is a good thing, addressing the causes of social need should be at least as virtuous.

Yet you would not think so to look at the attacks on charity campaigning and lobbying in recent years. One consequence of the big society agenda has been a draining away of legitimacy of the larger service and campaigning organisations in the eyes of Government, who do not see them as representative of beneficiary interest.  The continuing shift to a contract culture has also led charities to question their campaigning role while commissioners want to stifle dissent. This has been coupled with a sustained attack from some of the right leaning think tanks and further questioning from the PASC committee on charity campaigning. Add in a growing public concern about lobbying which has also touched on charity campaigning and it is not difficult to see why the sector has become more nervous in its dealings with government and less sure footed about its campaigning legitimacy.

So what needs to change?

Political Parties need to:

Stop the binary distinction between seeing the voluntary sector as either campaigners or service providers. Research shows that those who do both are more effective than those who concentrate on just one aspect. Also that many of the services which we now take for granted were originally the result of campaigning by the sector.

Accept the current Charity Guidelines on Campaigning as fit for purpose and give a clear message to the sector that their campaigning role is just as accepted as their service provision and voluntary action. Adopt the Australian court’s ruling that “the generation of public debate” is a legitimate charitable purpose.

Abolish restrictive clauses in contracts and ensuring transparency about the impact of work done-this would also have the benefit of ensuring that money is not being wasted on projects which do not work or deliver on their aims.

Ensure co-production of policy and services.  This is already happening at local level as austerity bites even deeper and local government recognises that you have to mobilise local communities to support service solutions.

Include the sector more in joint policy development as a policy partner with Government not just service provider. Engaging more deeply with Sector as strategic partners in helping to develop, manage and deliver policy can produce better public policy solutions and often save the public purse.

The Sector needs to:

Find ways of reasserting our credentials as the authentic voice of users, demonstrating how we are networked into communities -those with political nous are already doing this. How you engage with your supporters, who they are and how you present yourself and them to Government becomes fundamental to how you are going to be listened to.

Stop presuming we own campaigners and members and think more about bottom up conversations with communities and start reflecting better what their aspirations are. Governments of any persuasion will continue the drive towards localism, albeit with contradictions along the way, and we need to respond more to this.

Work harder on presenting a more unified case to Government on key issues. Alliances and coalitions are now the pre-eminent way Government wants to do business. We need to talk more with one voice on key issues not a number of dissonant voices.

Make it easier to engage with a downsized civil service by having clearer policy solutions that are rooted in communities’ experience.

Take account of austerity-gone are days where campaigning asks could just be framed in terms of spending more to fix an issue. Defensive campaigns to protect the status quo are failing. As sector we need to look far more to innovative solutions which build out from local communities as well as altering the overall framework of regulation.

Restate the sectors role and validity as campaigner and show how this differs from commercial lobbying. The Sector should issue its own guidelines on good campaigning which encapsulates the principles we work to and positive impact we have. We should be bolder about our role in holding Government to account when our beneficiaries interests are at stake.

There is much to play for in the next election but the sectors historic role in securing positive social change cannot be taken for granted. We need a self-confident narrative and reframing of the debate on how campaigning delivers social value and is grounded in the wellsprings of voluntary action.

For your chance to tell NCVO what we should be doing in our campaigning policy work answer our three quick questions.

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Brian is chair of NCVO’s campaign advisory group and author of NCVO’s Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing.

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