How to talk about charities and campaigning

In today’s Times…

Charity campaigning is once again under scrutiny following a series of high-profile interventions on issues that the public and politicians care about. The British Red Cross has commented on the now-annual winter problems faced by the NHS. And there will no doubt be scrutiny of the successful campaigning work of the Time to Change coalition following yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister that the government is stepping up its response to problems in mental health.

Not everyone agrees that charities engaging in political debate is a good thing, and inevitably there is some backlash. In today’s Times, an opinion piece by Melanie Phillips (‘Charities should stop meddling in politics‘) is particularly critical. She argues that charities should stay well out of political campaigning and that rules need to be more restrictive. It’s an article that is almost certainly shooting the messenger, and it peddles some familiar myths.

So, what should we do  when faced by these arguments from friends and colleagues who might not know the sector that well?* We think the response is to make a positive argument for charity campaigning.

Campaigning is about addressing the root causes of problems

Charities large and small do a great job in delivering services that benefit the public and save the taxpayer money. A great example is the aforementioned British Red Cross, and its Home From Hospital discharge scheme. But it’s just as important – and it may have a bigger impact – for charities to bring to the attention of the media, politicians and the public the problems that lead to charities needing to intervene.

So, by campaigning around the need to support more independent living, the British Red Cross is highlighting to the public one of the root causes of the problems currently faced by the NHS. Campaigning is often about early intervention: and as David Robinson has argued, it’s better to build a fence at the top of the cliff than have to drive an ambulance to the bottom.

Campaigning is needed to make our democracy work effectively

It would be great to think that governments have all the answers, that civil servants are all-knowing when it comes to social problems, or that politicians hear the voices of those furthest away from Whitehall or the town hall. They neither can nor do, and as a result we end up with the sort of social and everyday injustices that the Prime Minister spoke about yesterday.

Campaigning can help to stimulate the state and its institutions into taking action where otherwise it wouldn’t. Campaigning can help to hold those in power to account. Organised campaigns, led by charities, can give voice to those who might not be heard otherwise. The Prime Minister yesterday lauded the ‘tremendous campaigning work’ by Black Mental Health UK for ‘[exposing] injustices in the way black people with mental ill health in particular are treated, and [ensuring] politicians take action to put things right.’ Campaigning is central to the way our democracy works and our lives are better for it. And if you don’t agree, try living in a country where activism is being closed down.

Donors and the public support charity campaigning

There’s a fair amount of evidence to indicate that the public support the right for charities to campaign, while donors are more likely to see campaigning as a duty, and not just a right. In fact, it is donors who pay for campaigns, not government bodies. The charity regulator thinks that campaigning and political activity is legitimate and valuable, a view echoed by the current charities minister. And as we saw yesterday, the PM supports charity campaigning.

That’s not to say this is an uncontested area. What the public don’t want to see is charities being party political, and only working with or supporting one political party. But the guidance is clear (they cannot) and, contrary to today’s Times article, things go wrong very rarely. If anything, charities are over-cautious when it comes to campaigning, for fear of breaking the rules. Timidity is a bigger risk to our society than overzealousness.

If anything, we should be more concerned about the fact that only a third of the population agree that they can influence decisions that affect where they live (PDF, 403KB) – and a much higher proportion (7 in 10 people) think it is important that they should be able to. The debate should instead be about how do we better support people to organise so that they can change what happens in their world.

Postscript – a few myths to be aware of…

In the work that we’ve been doing at NCVO around public trust and confidence we’ve learnt from work in other areas that proactive myth-busting tends not to work – it simply ends up repeating the myth (this is a great article on the subject).

er, no it isn’t…

There are myths that you might need to react to though: charity campaigning is funded by government (in fact, relatively few charities are funded by government, and there are now clear guidelines on all government grant funding); charities aren’t allowed to undertake political activity (they can, within guidelines, but they definitely cannot be party political); and charities aren’t transparent or accountable (they are, detailed information can typically be found in annual reports, though there’s room for improvement).

What arguments do you think we should make?

Brighton Housing Trust on why they campaign.

*There are stronger technical/legal/political science arguments for why charities should campaign. Good starting points are Andrew Purkis, and this fantastic article on the moral arguments for why charities should campaign.


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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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