The world is a better place thanks to charity campaigning

From time to time I read grumbles about charity campaigning. You know the sort. Why are charities spending this money on lobbying and not on ‘the frontline’? Why should these self-appointed charities be campaigning against the government’s policies? And so on.

In many ways, for someone like me, it’s hard to meet these head on. It’s so obvious and natural to me that sometimes it’s hard to take a step back. It’s like the child who keeps asking ‘but why?’ until your reason has been exhausted. (In fact, mathematicians have a name for the point you reach at the end of these questions: a primitive notion. It’s something that you can’t clearly define using further concepts, you can only describe it with an appeal to intuition and experience.)

Taking a step back

Why do we campaign? To improve things for the people and causes we work for. It’s axiomatic to charities’ very existence. All charities do it on some scale, in some way. Even if you don’t think your charity does any campaigning, your very existence is a statement of your beliefs and a reminder to the world around you of what you stand for.

But to do anything effectively, including campaigning, it needs to be underpinned by a why and a how. The vision and the strategy, if we were talking in organisational plans.

On the why. If nobody believed there was a why, the charity wouldn’t have established or continued. If you didn’t believe there was a why, you wouldn’t be working or volunteering for the charity.

That leaves us with the how. I’ll come back to that.

So as simple as this seems, I still think that, as campaigners, it’s sometimes important for us to take a step back too and see ourselves from an external perspective.

The campaign for campaigning

Some people have a negative view about campaigning. Not many, I think, but a vocal minority. So we need to think about how we answer them. What would persuade them? In other words, what does ‘the campaign for campaigning’ look like?

It only gets you so far to defend the principle of campaigning by reference to specific campaigns. Certainly, you can select campaigns that demonstrate that, for any given person, there is a charity that campaigns on a matter they care about. But what about the other charities whose campaigns they dislike?

The only universal way to defend, indeed to promote, campaigning is as a virtue in itself: much like civic involvement or a free press. These things strengthen our society. You may not agree with your neighbour’s politics, but on the whole, it’s best that people in your street get involved in their community. You may not like everything that newspapers print, but on the whole, it’s far better to have scrutiny than not.

These things, like a robust civil society, are hallmarks of a strong and vibrant society. Even if a charity campaign never changed anything, which of course they do, the world would still be a better place for the debates they prompt.

We need to start talking about the intrinsic value of campaigning – and more than ever we need to take these criticisms seriously and respond point by point. Our critics will say that many campaigns are politically motivated – but charities do not and must not stand on the left or the right of the political spectrum – they stand for the people and causes they represent.

Our critics will say our resources would be better spent on walking the walk rather than talking the talk – so we need to be clear that the decision to campaign is not one we take lightly but one where we know investing in change will bring benefits not only for those affected now but also for future generations.

Our critics will say that many of our campaigns are self-interested – and we need to be clear that organisational gain is not the basis for speaking out and that we actively place our beneficiaries at the heart of everything we do.

In turn, we need a better narrative about the value of campaigning – and one that speaks to people across the political spectrum. Most contemporary political parties agree that the state should not have a monopoly on social solutions and increasingly that charities, businesses and social enterprises should be engaged in delivering public goods – but this only works if charities are trusted and independent of government.

How

So, how do you campaign in a way that demonstrates these values at every turn?

I’d say that it’s the same way that you run an effective campaign in the first place. Working to a high standard, using quality evidence that enhances your credibility. Ambitious but achievable goals that show you understand the environment and the implications of your campaign.

And messages and calls to action that a coalition of people can get behind, not least because increasingly, with decision-making becoming more localised, you need to be bringing on board more and more stakeholders.

I see many such campaigns, and they make me proud of our sector. For NCVO’s part, we believe firmly in the fundamental right of charities to campaign – and we’ll continue to defend this both in public and in private.

 

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, leads NCVO's volunteering, policy, research and campaigning work in the UK and internationally. With lead responsibility for shaping the external environment for the voluntary sector, he blogs about the big issues facing voluntary organisations.

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