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Guest Blog | Belinda Pratten, 1 June 2017 | Carry On Campaigning
Rumours are swirling that charities have been silenced by the Lobbying Act during the election period, prevented from speaking out in support of their beneficiaries or cause. The Guardian, for example, reports that ‘sector leaders feel muzzled’ by the Act. But while it has undoubtedly helped to create a ‘chilling climate’ for campaigning, its impact must not be exaggerated: charities should – indeed must – carry on campaigning.
Don’t just take my word for it, here is Ben Wilkinson from the Electoral Commission writing in a guest blog for NCVO:
‘Charities and other non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and we encourage their active participation during campaign periods. The rules do not prevent them from campaigning and engaging in public debate.’ (My emphasis)
Wilkinson goes on to explain that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets the rules on campaign spending by non-political parties during an election campaign. These rules are not targeted at charities, but at any ‘non-political party’ and are designed to ensure transparency and prevent any group from unduly influencing voters’ decisions. You only have to think of the impact of Super PACs (Political Action Committees) that can spend unlimited funds to campaign for or against political candidates in the US to see that some restrictions might be a good idea.
Yes, charities need to understand (and abide by) the rules – and yes, those rules are vague and sweeping – they could and should be much clearer as Lord Hodgson’s review has recommended. But as long as they are campaigning in support of their charitable purpose and not for (or against) a political party, charities can speak up. Indeed, as Vicky Browning, Chief Executive of ACEVO, has argued:
‘The only way that this election is going to return a government that understands the needs and opinions of a diverse range of communities is through hearing the voice of charities.’
A healthy democracy requires different voices to be heard, including (or especially) those who are too often marginalised in mainstream debates. This is more important than ever when sections of the media are so quick to denounce those they disagree with, whether a Supreme Court judge or Gary Lineker, as ‘enemies of the people’. And when policy debates appear to be less predictable – and perhaps more interesting – again.
Against this background, charities have a vital role to play in holding all parties to account as a means of furthering their mission and giving a voice to the widest possible range of interests and causes. We must not let ourselves be frozen out.
Sue Tibballs, 5 May 2017 | Government should be clearer on charities and campaigning
With three recent reports saying that campaigning is a central function of charities, it’s time for clarity on the attitude of government, says our columnist
Three major reports about the voluntary sector have appeared in recent weeks: one from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities; another from the Lloyds Bank Foundation; and the third from the sector think tank Civil Exchange. All look at the challenges facing charities and all are emphatic on one point: the absolute centrality of campaigning for charities and other voluntary sector organisations.
The Lords Select Committee on Charities says in its report: “Charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of any society; advocacy is a central part of their work and a sign of a healthy democracy.”
The Lloyds Bank Foundation says in Facing Forward: How Small and Medium-sized Charities Can Adapt to Survive that “central government should… actively seek the voice of smaller charities and their connections to local communities to inform policy and practice, particularly as Brexit unfolds”.
Civil Exchange’s report A Shared Society? calls on Theresa May, the Prime Minister, to “make a clear statement about the legitimate role of campaigning and the importance of the voice of the sector in helping to shape policies and services”.
When three separate reports from three very different and highly credible sources all issue such a clarion call for campaigning to be recognised as a legitimate and valued part of what charities do, you’d think the game was up. Surely now is the time for the government to make its position clear. Indeed, it is the lack of clarity that has been most damaging to the sector rather than any substantive change in the freedom to campaign.
The lobbying act was never supposed to curb charity campaigning, and the government should accept Lord Hodgson’s sensible recommendations to reduce its scope.
It would be helpful if the government could reaffirm its commitment to the Charity Commission’s CC9 guidance on campaigning and political activity and put to rest rumours that this will be reviewed. It should also restate its commitment to the Compact, the agreement that sets out the relationship between public bodies and voluntary organisations, which was reviewed in 2010.
Despite the rowing back from the anti-advocacy agreement being inserted in all contracts, gagging clauses continue to be attached to some grants. The tampon tax managed by the Treasury has them, and it would seem that the Department for International Development is also attaching restrictions. The inconsistent approach at a national level is very difficult to manage. At a local level, it seems commissioners are interpreting the general mood in even more extreme terms. Small charities talk about being labelled “difficult”, even if they just ask questions about policy approaches.
Expending so much energy on nitpicking over the nature of the relationship between charities and the public purse is a waste of energy. Given the scale of the challenges we face as a nation, we should be focusing on how the state and the voluntary sector can work together in pursuit of common goals. It should be a partnership underpinned by honest dialogue and, when necessary, an ability to challenge.
With so many now calling for it, will the government now offer the clarification and reassurance the sector so badly needs?
Sue Tibballs, 29 March 2017 | Don't design campaigns to fit evaluation models
Our columnist is inspired by a new approach to campaign measurement from a Midlands-based charity.
Measurement and evaluation is often a fraught business, particularly when the things being evaluated are as complex as campaigns. I remember Jim Coe, a campaign consultant, telling me that the best tools for evaluating a campaign are a pen and a piece of paper. In other words, there is no model or fixed approach that can just be rolled in.
Professional campaigners are under a lot of pressure to demonstrate their impact and prove their return on investment. They often have to set targets and milestones, and show a whole linear journey that can demonstrate that their campaign has achieved what it set out to do. For campaigns aimed at achieving a change in policy or law, this can be relatively straightforward. For campaigns to change attitudes or behaviour, this is much more difficult. As a result, much campaigning is now focused on that which can be measured.
Sport England has just launched the second phase of its This Girl Can campaign. It is a multi-million-pound advertising campaign from a government usually wary of publicly funded social marketing. As an effort to shift cultural norms around being sporty, I’m sure it is effective. But I notice Sport England claims that 1.6 million women are more active thanks to the campaign. How can it know this? It can track engagement. It can test brand salience. It can measure for attitudinal shifts. But how can it know that this campaign is what led Jane to go to netball on Thursday night? Many things that are out of their control will have been involved in that decision.
Because of all these pressures and contradictions, I was really inspired by a new approach to evaluation used by Grapevine, a Coventry-based charity that supports people who experience isolation, poverty and disadvantage. It recently delivered a £75,000 project aimed at supporting 1,000 people to become more physically active. But it wanted to measure much more than the target: it wanted to measure the whole value of its social movement-based approach.
It used two men called Andrew (known as the two Andrews) who have developed an approach called “re-evaluation”. This is not based on indicators defined at the outset, but allows the process to reveal the value. Those involved in the project are invited to be actively involved in the evaluation on the basis that those using or delivering a service are best placed to identify its value. And they bring a multi-dimensional approach, recognising that value will reside either visibly or invisibly in various places, from value judgements and strategies to the way systems and services are configured and used.
Using this approach, Grapevine was shown to have delivered value far in excess of all expectations, including the 1,000-more-active target. I found the approach liberating and wonder how it can be used to reveal the full value of campaigns. It was also striking to see the level of interest in the public sector locally. As one health professional put it: “Things have got so bad, we just have to try new ways of doing things.” If an upside of a downturn is that we get liberated from targets and indicators, then bring it on. Let’s be led by what we think is right, and not design our campaigns to fit the evaluation.
Sue Tibballs, 28 February 2017 | Lessons from east Africa
Sue Tibballs, 28 February 2017
The chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation reports from her trip to another continent
I am writing this from a warm and fragrant Nairobi garden. The Sheila McKechnie Foundation is here in Kenya delivering advocacy training to children’s rights organisations from all over east Africa. The difference in their local contexts is, of course, profoundly different from the context here in the UK. The people we are training are working to prevent high incidences of child marriage and female genital mutilation, and to stop children being recruited into the militia, left to live on the streets or forced into domestic labour.
They are also much more politically constrained too. We can’t talk about “campaigning”. Our course is delicately called “strategic engagement and communications”. Our Ethiopian guests are working in a complete social media blackout. And before now I haven’t worked with campaigners who have tribal elders at the top of their power map. All this is fascinating, challenging and, at times, deeply sobering.
These things aside, it is also really interesting to see how similar are the challenges they face as campaigners. How to build meaningful relationships and dialogue with decision-makers, for example, and weighing up insider vs outsider tactics. Power structures in these countries are more stratified and power is concentrated in even fewer hands. It’s not much of an upside, but this does make things easier to read. You know where the power resides; you just need to get through to it. We heard about incredible campaigners such as Rebecca Gyumi in Tanzania, who last year brought a legal challenge to child marriage and won.
Community engagement and movement-building is another central theme. Many issues are so culturally ingrained that finding a way to work with leaders and public opinion is extremely sensitive. We have heard about a meeting that one group managed to secure with a local imam. After extensive formalities, an honest conversation eventually took place in which the imam revealed that he personally did not support FGM but his community expected him to do so. How could he work with the NGO to help move attitudes without losing the support of his community?
As in the UK, there is an active conversation about how to involve beneficiaries or service-users in campaigning – and, indeed, to put them out front. We heard the story of Shujaaz, a multi-media platform for young Kenyans almost wholly created by the end user. There was another story of a young African woman who was flown to the US to represent an organisation that had helped her. With no experience of public speaking, her simple act of removing her shoes when she took to the stage – because she had rarely worn shoes in her lifetime – was an act of such powerful authenticity she had the audience in her hands and reduced senior officials to tears.
Listening to our guests and speakers, I feel there is even greater openness to ideas and a readiness to try new things here than there is in the UK. And some approaches being tried here are virtually unheard of at home. Generation Girl, for example, led by Dr Faith Mwangi-Powell, has persuaded her donors to let her give money to activists who just want to try something. Not huge amounts, but with absolutely no strings attached. One young woman wanted money to hire a car so she could follow her president and try to secure an audience. After four days, she did and he made a significant announcement on FGM the very next day.
I have come to east Africa thinking we are here to teach, but I will come away feeling that we actually have a lot to learn.
Sue Tibballs, 26 January 2017 | We need strong leaders. Why not campaigners?
Sue Tibballs, 26 January 2017
It has become a platitude to say that we live in increasingly complex and unpredictable times. In this “age of anxiety” that such a climate is creating, we need really strong leadership like we’ve never needed it before.
As the author and strategy consultant Robert Phillips says, we need leaders who can “actively embrace complexity and dissent; transform old, rigid, super-tanker organisations into open and adaptive social movements; and make themselves vulnerable and accountable to the many, not the few; to campaign together, in new and sometimes surprising coalitions, for public value and the common good”.
Many of those best equipped to provide this kind of creative and transformative leadership must be campaigners in the voluntary sector. Campaigners by their nature are creative, adaptive and, of course, passionate and driven. Working in charities, they have a ring-side seat to observe the impact of fast-paced change on people’s lives and, not being constrained by profit motive or electoral success, are free to name it. So why do we seem to hear from them so rarely in our public life?
Sheila McKechnie, the founder of the charity that I run, was just such a leader. She had a very high public profile, regularly appearing in the media and with an exceptional personal network of influencers too. She was a player. And she was powerful. How many charity leaders could we say this of today? Shami Chakrabarti would be one (although I personally regret her taking a Labour peerage). Camila Batmanghelidjh, perhaps, but not now, given the closure of Kids Company. Certainly, there are hugely impressive people who are well known in the sector and perhaps by government. But very few have public profile, which is surely what we need.
I have found myself wondering if this is in part because campaigners rarely become organisational leaders, or that they are not the kinds of people trustees appoint to run their charities. In terms of skills, it feels like management, finance and fundraising skills trump all others. Campaigners rarely excel in these disciplines, in my experience, and perhaps because of a risk-averse culture that deters boards from appointing chief executives who have strong views and are willing to challenge. A good friend of mine who has run organisations in the past has been consulting and doing some journalism. She told me she feared she’d never get a senior job again because she had been too outspoken. She has, as it happens, but what a waste that would have been.
In these spin-immune, post-truth times, the people fronting campaigns are a huge factor in their success. Think Farage and Brexit – the messenger is just as important as the message. In not recognising the power of charismatic leadership and public profile, civil society is failing to use one of the most powerful tools in the activist arsenal. These are not times to play it safe. We need brave and inspiring campaigners to be shouting from the rooftops. Can we have some more campaigners in top jobs, please, and give them full encouragement to have strong views, be brave and take risks? To lead, in fact.
Sue Tibballs, 15 December 2016 | Our survey suggests we might be self-censoring.
Sue Tibballs, 15 December 2016
It is imperative that charities do campaign, and with real courage and determination.
The right of charities and other voluntary sector organisations to campaign has been much discussed in the sector and on these pages in recent months. Many – including me – have complained about charities retreating from campaigning and have pointed the finger at the government and the Charity Commission for inducing a chilling effect. But new evidence from the first SMK Campaigner Survey suggests a more nuanced picture.
Of the 100 people we spoke to, more than 90 per cent agreed there were threats to campaigning. Clearly, there is a problem. Interestingly, however, “negative media coverage of the work of the VCSE sector” was cited as the main cause by 65 per cent, with “conditions of funding discouraging campaigning” in second place at 63 per cent. In third place at 53 per cent was “senior managers and trustees being more cautious about campaigning”, followed closely by “guidance from the Charity Commission of England and Wales” at 52 per cent.
There are those in government and at the regulator who seem to have an anti-campaigning agenda, but there might also be a process of self-censorship going on. This is extremely disturbing. It is imperative that charities do campaign, and with real courage and determination. Indeed, 86 per cent of the respondents to our survey said they thought charities should be campaigning more, not less.
There are two problems here: one is that senior figures in charities might be over-estimating the risks. Legal and regulatory experts say there have not been substantial changes in the space to campaign. It does look as if there is some over-reaction to changes in law and regulation. Charities can still campaign.
The second problem is that reputation management by senior leaders is trumping judgements about principle. When organisations allow themselves to be led by concerns about reputation, rather than what they believe to be right, everything is at risk, not just funding.
One of charities’ most valuable roles is to advocate on behalf of beneficiaries and evidence the impact of policy. They also help people understand and access government services and support, and can help build consensus around complex social problems. They also hold government to account and challenge injustice, so there is a tension. But this is inevitable and healthy. The government and the sector need each other and should work together in a mature partnership.
The moves by some in this government and the regulator to contract the space to campaign is wrong-headed. Sector leaders need to challenge them and reach out to others who have a less ideology-driven agenda. They need to champion campaigning both publicly and within their own organisations. The main thing our respondents felt could improve the campaigning environment was “more proactive media and communications work to keep the value of campaigning high on the agenda”. Perhaps the most troubling statistic from our survey is that one in five respondents said their organisations were already campaigning less. This is not good. We need a positive assertion of the importance of campaigning from sector leaders, not a cautious retreat.
1 December 2016 | SMK Campaigner Survey: 90% think campaigning is under threat!
1 December 2016
The results from the first annual SMK Campaigner Survey have been published today. They make for interesting reading: 90% of respondents say they feel that campaigning is under threat, and one in five say that, as a result, their organisations are now campaigning less. Please click here to read the media release and here to see the full survey results. Read the Third Sector coverage today.
Sue Tibballs, 14 November 2016 | A government that stops listening..
Sue Tibballs, 14 November 2016
At the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, we don’t take a view on the content of campaigns, as long as they don’t break basic principles of human rights, respect and tolerance. But we do celebrate successful campaigns and campaigners.
One of the most impressive campaigners I have come across is Pat Davies, chair of Preston New Road Action Group, and winner of the Environmental Award at our annual Campaigner Awards this year. For the past two years, Davies has led a campaign to stop the energy company Cuadrilla being allowed to explore for shale gas – to frack – in her locality. Along with the Roseacre site nearby, theirs has become a test case: if permission is given to frack here in Lancashire, it will give a green light elsewhere.
Davies exemplifies the qualities of a formidable campaigner. There is the element of surprise: she is a well-dressed woman in her late fifties. You have to look closely to see the yellow band inscribed “Frack Off!” among the pearl bracelets on her wrist. She is a self-taught master of her brief. She is articulate and persuasive. She can mobilise and recruit: more than 30,000 people sent objections to Lancashire County Council. And she is tenacious: she has been leading this campaign full-time for two years, on a wholly voluntary basis.
Most importantly, she has been successful – she and her colleagues have managed to persuade the council, a Conservative authority, to deny planning permission, and all of this on a shoestring budget. Cuadrilla will have spent millions.
Successful until the day, that is, that Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, overruled the local authority. No matter what one thinks of fracking, this intervention reveals some awkward truths about how this government really feels about local democracy and people having a voice.
Even as Theresa May talked with great passion at the Conservative Party conference about listening to people and putting them first, one of her ministers enacted a spectacular example of Westminster making a decision in London against the wishes of a local community. What does local democracy mean when this can happen?
It is tempting to think that Davies and her fellow campaigners are just “nimbys” doing what anyone would do if fracking was proposed locally. But the government’s own statistics show that only 19 per cent of the public support fracking and 46 per cent are neither for nor against. This suggests that Davies and her colleagues are ahead of the rest of us. As Davies says, there is no “social licence” for fracking.
At SMK our driving belief is that people should have the ability to shape their world. This government seems to want us to believe it shares this view, but treating Davies and her colleagues with such contempt tells a different story. If we want a vibrant society in which people feel motivated to contribute, they need to feel they have a voice, and we need people like Davies to bring those voices together in well-evidenced campaigns.
This “command-and-control” politics might suit short-term political interests. But it is to the detriment of democracy, civic engagement and society.
Sue Tibballs, 04 October 2016 | The three broad types of charity campaigners
Sue Tibballs, 04 October 2016
What is it that makes some people become campaigners and how can we encourage more people to do so, asks our columnist
A question that campaigners regularly ponder is: what is it that makes some people become campaigners, and how can we encourage more people to do so? This is particularly relevant for big social challenges that might not have any personal ramifications (it was depressing to see how many turned up to a public meeting where I live when the council said it was thinking of getting rid of a right-hand turn for cars at a local junction).
It is an absolutely critical question. Despite high levels of concern about a wide array of issues, relatively small numbers of people take the step of actively campaigning. Why is it that some people do and others don’t?
From our experience at SMK, three broad groups come to mind. The first are what I will call the Out of Adversity campaigners – people who have been through some unusual and often traumatic event and campaign to stop it happening to others. Driven by personal pain and a need to channel this positively, these campaigners are often the most formidable and effective: Cynthia Barlow from Roadpeace, who has done so much for cycling safety since her own daughter was killed, and Shirley Smith from the If U Care Share Foundation, campaigning to raise awareness of male depression after her son took his life. There are so many; they’re often family members and very often mothers. Doreen Lawrence is probably the most famous of all.
Then there are the Dynasty Campaigners. These are the people who are born into it. They typically grow up in values-led, socially active families and are motivated from an early age to be involved in social change. Very many of these people work in charities and politics – look at the generations of the Benn family who have been in politics, or Helen Pankhurst, great grand-daughter of Emmeline and grand-daughter of Sylvia, and herself an active feminist campaigner.
My final category is Convert Campaigners – the ones recruited to a cause through significant relationships with others. Evidence suggests the impact of peers on campaigning behaviour is higher than you might think: a study in the US found that more than half of anti-abortion campaigners either hadn’t had a particularly strong view on the issue – or even held the opposite view – until they were influenced and recruited by a peer.
Of all these categories it is perhaps the last that is most interesting. We can’t control the numbers in the first; indeed, we have to hope there are as few of these as possible, given the pain involved in their journeys. The second is interesting – particularly at the moment – because it shows how politics can interest and mobilise people.
But for campaigners, it is the third group that we can foster, for we can meet people and seek to persuade them to share our concerns and join our fights. It testifies to the value of investing time in people and relationships, and to how much people are willing to give and do if they feel passionate about a cause.
These groupings are very broadly drawn and wholly unscientific. It would be interesting to bring some more robust behaviourial insight to bear on the various journeys into campaigning. Has anyone out there actually done this?
Sue Tibballs, 25 August 2016 | Distinguish between the three campaign models
Sue Tibballs, 25 August 2016
Our columnist considers what makes for effective campaigners and campaigns.
Summer can be a good time to step back and find space and time to reflect. I’ve been doing this around one central question: what makes for effective campaigners and campaigns?
A new report that has prompted some thinking is Networked Change from an American consultancy called NetChange (and thanks to Bond’s Tom Baker and his The Thoughtful Campaigner blog for bringing this to my attention).
The authors distinguish between three models: institutional heavyweights: traditional top-down and centralised models of campaigning; grass-roots upstarts – the digitally enabled, decentralised campaigns; and directed-network campaigns.
Really, what the authors are recommending is a blend of the old and the new, or horizontal and vertical approaches. Today’s most effective campaigning organisations cede central control to work to a more networked model where supporters and partners are given more permission to organise their own activity. Importantly, this isn’t the same as a brand – the central narrative is the idea or the story that sits at the heart of the campaign. So these campaigns open up to the opportunities of grass-roots activism, but they provide clear direction and focus.
These ideas are not unrelated to those in Hahrie Han’s book How Organizations Develop Activists. She draws a distinction between organising and mobilising, with the organising approach decentralised and focused on encouraging relationships and individual development. Mobilising as an approach is more centralised and focused on encouraging discrete, transactional encounters with as many people as possible. As with NetChange, her recipe for success is a blend of the two.
Both these books are from the US, as are their case studies. It is interesting to consider what the equivalent British campaigns or campaigning organisations might be. Is anyone working to a directed-network model here? Citizen’s UK might be an example.
While their training model is common across all their chapters, local members decide campaigning priorities and are given autonomy in how they want to organise. Friends of the Earth similarly offers tools and support to local campaigners, but does not insist they work to its script.
The other thing I am struck by is the fact that almost all of the thinking about campaigning and social change seems to come out of the US. There are numerous think tanks, but nothing equivalent in the UK.
Post-Brexit, all the evidence suggests civil society will be doing more campaigning, not less, in the future. We can keep borrowing from the US, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a dedicated resource of our own?
Sue Tibballs, 8 July 2016 | The government might learn from EU debate..
Sue Tibballs, 8 July 2016
Encouraging charities to campaign is crucial as the whole concept of the big society was surely about that, argues the chief executive.
It has been quite a time in the world of campaigning. The government has been in campaigning mode in recent months, with huge amounts of public money being directed at keeping the UK in the EU.
The government’s desire to win seemed to influence its line on whether charities could and should campaign. The clause that was to be inserted into government grant agreements to prohibit funds being used to influence government was “paused”, and the Charity Commission decided to take a softer line on charities campaigning around the EU referendum. It is tempting to think it changed its position in response to effective lobbying from the sector. But it might have had more to do with the government putting pressure on the Charity Commission because it wanted charities to help it.
We have also seen a victory for the Hillsborough campaign. It’s an extraordinary story, brilliantly told in the documentary aired just after the victory. This is an epic tale of The People v The Establishment and their long journey over 27 years to finally get to the truth, secure justice and confer some dignity on those who lost their lives and their families. The Hillsborough campaigners remind us of the extraordinary power of ordinary people.
Hillsborough also shows us why people must campaign: because power can corrupt and it needs to be held to account. The EU referendum reminds us why organisations and governments must campaign: because there are some big decisions to be made about how the UK sees itself in the world and how we are going to work with our neighbours.
This is why it is a genuine problem that the term “campaigning” is seen as toxic, an activity that is extreme and dangerous. For us at SMK, campaigning is a catch-all term for any and all activity, founded on a set of beliefs and values, that seeks to make a change in pursuit of them.
Campaigning does not of itself have any political persuasion or value base. But it is the means by which we express and pursue our values and political beliefs, whether it is a government using its resources to campaign for EU membership, a group of ordinary people seeking justice for those they love, a community trying to save a library, charities pushing for more state support for the vulnerable or even landowners campaigning to stop people walking on their land.
I hope the government’s realisation that sometimes it does want charities to campaign will put an end to its wrong-headed attempts to stifle charity campaigning. It should be doing precisely the opposite – encouraging charities to campaign. The whole concept of the big society was surely about this. You cannot ask citizens and communities to take more responsibility in society without also allowing them to express a view about what kind of society we should have.
One positive step would be to appoint some campaigners to the Charity Commission, given that it is recruiting and some of the incumbents seem to have a dim view of campaigning. It would be really good to see the commission lift campaigning out of the political trough and restored to it’s rightful place as an essential element of any decent and democratic society.
Sue Tibballs, 11th July 2016 | Could charities have swung the vote behind the European Union?
Sue Tibballs, 11th July 2016
Charities still retain huge levels of trust, but were constrained during the referendum by narrow advice from the Charity Commission, writes our columnist.
Brexit. As in a game of Jenga, the British people have pulled a block out from the base of British politics and everything is tumbling. The political establishment is frantically try to re-establish order. Extraordinary times.
What part have charities played in all of this, if any? Or more appositely, what part could charities have played in all of this?
As you will know, the issue of whether charities could or should campaign in the run-up to the referendum became a matter of some controversy. The Charity Commission brought out its guidance quite late and with minimal consultation, and it included the now notorious line that only in “exceptional circumstances” did it think any charity would consider it appropriate to campaign. Without doubt, this stopped a lot of charities from campaigning – only those with the legal support and political will did. For many, trying to navigate the “advice”, particularly with risk-averse boards, was just too difficult.
So what do we think of that advice now?
Rather than the UK’s membership of the EU being relevant to only a handful of charities, as the commission seems to think, it seems to me that our membership of the EU is relevant to a great many. Any organisation concerned with workers’ rights and equality, global peace and security, or environmental sustainability, for example, has an interest in being part of the EU – and that covers quite a large chunk of the sector. For them, the question of Britain’s membership is a legitimate matter of policy interest, relevant to their pursuance of their charitable objects.
Then there is the EU money available to charities. Just a few days before the vote, Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, wrote an impassioned piece in The Huffington Post about how valuable the EU is, citing the £13bn pot of EU money for which British charities can currently bid. So why, as the responsible minister, did he not seek to reassure charities and publicly soften the regulator’s advice?
It seems to me a great shame, and highly regrettable, that the Charity Commission gave such narrow advice. Who knows what difference it might have made if more charities had actively campaigned, but they still enjoy higher levels of trust that any other sector and are uniquely placed to help inform and educate the public about the implications of critical policy choices.
Charities also, of course, enjoy very close relationships with the people they serve, many of whom are the economically vulnerable and understandably anxious people who voted to leave. Can and should charities do more to bridge the gap between people and the political classes?
I believe the answer to this is “yes”, particularly at a time of such democratic deficit (if this referendum proved one thing is that people do not feel their elected representatives are really representing them). Not only do I think this would be hugely valuable to society, but I think it would be of value to charities too.
Sue Tibballs, 13 June 2016 | Where are the females in the campaigning canon?!
For feminists, for example, activism in the public realm is always accompanied by exploration and enquiry of the private. The personal is political, as we say – understanding how society influences us is a necessary part of understanding how we can influence the world. But this consciousness-raising stage of activism seems to be wholly missing in the how-to-campaign canon (if we can call it that).
Pursuing this gender perspective, there is also something quite masculine, I think, in classic green tactics. Boarding ships and scaling buildings – isn’t this quite swashbuckling and heroic? In fact, I’ve just been given a brilliantly boys-own guide to campaigning by a Swiss ex-Greenpeace campaigner called Peter Metzinger. It is called The AC/DC Strategy and marries his love for rock’n’roll with his advice for campaigners – complete with a buxom and bestockinged Rosie on the cover. I like the creativity and mischief in Peter’s approach. And why not have a book for the boys? But where are the more feminine versions? What would a feminist approach to campaigning look like?
I started my career at the Women’s Environmental Network, a hybrid of feminism and environmentalism. How it came to be born is instructive. Its founder, Bernadette Vallely, had worked at Friends of the Earth in the late 1980s and wanted it to look at the domestic and personal aspects of environmentalism, but FoE wanted to stay focused on the big global challenges. So Bernadette left and set up WEN, which ran powerful campaigns around household waste, the effects of toxins in breast milk and how female consumers could buy fashion, jewellery and make-up sustainably. FoE and WEN are both very different today, but it is interesting to observe WEN (the female focus on the personal and domestic) setting up separately from FoE (the male focus on the public and global).
I’m not for a minute saying one approach to campaigning is right and the other wrong, or even that one is better. And of course I am drawing on some gross stereotypes to make my point. But these observations do make me wonder whose version of campaigning we are teaching. Whose lens are we looking through to teach the next generation? Are those of us who attempt to teach campaigning drawing on a sufficiently diverse experience?
I have just learnt that a new history of campaigning has been written, funnily enough, by someone at FoE. I wonder what stories it will tell? I can’t wait to find out …
Sue Tibballs, 10 May 2016 | It's our campaigning that sustains the third sector!
Sue Tibballs, 10 May 2016
Our columnist was taken aback when someone suggested the most interesting campaigns are no longer coming from the charity sector.
At a voluntary sector event in Scotland last month, someone said to me that “the most interesting campaigns today are not coming from the charity sector”. I was taken aback. Haven’t charities always been at the vanguard of social campaigning?
A look at the winners of this year’s SMK Campaigner Awards suggest this person had a point. Of the nine issue-specific categories, only two were won by charities this year – All Walks Beyond the Catwalk for its work on diversity in the fashion industry, and the If U Care Share Foundation, set up to encourage more open discussion of suicide. All the other winners were individuals or small groups – such as Martin Emery and his family, whose United Discriminated campaign forced dramatic changes in access to football stadia for disabled people.
SMK’s roots are in supporting grass-roots and marginalised campaigns and campaigners. So perhaps we need to extend our reach if we want to attract more entrants from bigger charities. But I think something else is going on too.
Take homelessness. Shelter, one of our award sponsors, has been campaigning for 50 years now on homelessness and poor housing. It still does this to great effect – last year, for example, it campaigned successfully for a ban on revenge evictions. Yet the vast majority of its income is now spent on providing advice and support to those at risk of homelessness. It is a strong success story that Shelter can pursue its objectives both by raising awareness of the problem and by being part of the solution. But this can bring conflicts.
Such a body has to be an independent voice that holds government to account, but which also takes public funds to deliver services. It needs to tell positive stories about impact to funders, while pointing out how much more needs to be done to keep money flowing in from donors. It has to integrate campaign messages with fundraising appeals, brand-building and so on. Campaigners in charities say they struggle to compete for attention and resources among other priorities.
By way of comparison, another of our award winners this year was E15, which campaigns on housing issues in east London. It has done much to raise the profile of social housing and forced eviction. It is a group of mothers with minimal resources and no formal legal entity – only themselves and the power of their arguments. If it has achieved cut-through and grabbed the public’s attention, it is easy to see why. It can be more outspoken and has no conflicts to manage. It is always a powerful story when small groups of people take on big vested interests.
In my view, there is a place for both kinds of campaigning. They each do things the other cannot, so they are vital to a healthy campaign ecosystem. But if there is a perception that charities are not actively campaigning or delivering the really innovative, game-changing campaigns, this is a concern. Campaigns are the clearest expression of a charity’s core values and purpose, and are what engage and inspire. Campaigns also call for the kinds of support that charities then get involved in providing. You could say that it is campaigning – our values and our voice – that more than anything else sustains the sector.
Sue Tibballs, 17 March 2016 | Changing attitudes is as vital as probing policy
Sue Tibballs, 17 March 2016
A narrow interpretation of campaigning does no good for anyone in civil society, writes our columnist
What do you understand by the term “to campaign”? I’ve always understood it to mean to bring about change in a broad sense, and seen campaigns as trying to change everything from attitudes and behaviour to cultural norms, policy and law. But I’m struck by a trend in our sector to equate campaigning more narrowly with policy and advocacy.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course. In fact, it is important. In the recent parliamentary debate about the third reading of the charities bill, Anna Turley, the shadow minister for civil society, rightly said that charities are “often best placed to provide important insights that can inform and improve policymaking. They are often the ones on the front line who see the gaps in provision, the duplication of services and the inefficiency and waste, and who spot the ways of solving or, better still, preventing problems.”
I wonder if this narrow interpretation might be contributing to some of the tensions around charities and campaigning? If campaigning is about the sector’s role in influencing attitudes and behaviour, as well as scrutinising policy, then don’t the benefits of campaigning become clearer?
Take something like the growing price of physical inactivity – estimated to cost the economy in England £8.2bn a year. It is very much in governments’ interests that, say, the British Heart Foundation carries out public-facing campaigns to encourage people to lead healthier lives, or that Help for Heroes runs fundraising campaigns to provide support to ex-servicemen and women who otherwise would be reliant on the state.
This government is undoubtedly acting to constrain the space for campaigning, and the third sector needs to be robust in challenging this. But I feel the sector would be able to mount a much more effective challenge if it maintained a broader interpretation of what it is to campaign.
I would argue that policy and advocacy are just tools in service of a much wider goal – allowing citizens to contribute to political thinking in the broadest sense, to say what matters to them, to challenge societal norms and to argue for a shift in political priorities if they do not think existing policy serves them. Don’t we all join and support charities in large part to allow them to do this?
Charities are at the heart of civil society and have played a central role in every major political advance, from civil liberties to climate change. Sheila McKechnie put the interests of homeless people on the political agenda in the 1970s, then established the concept of consumer rights in the 1980s. None of these activities have been partisan. Charities don’t – and can’t – act in the interests of a particular political party, but they do follow closely what the government of the day is doing, in the interests of their beneficiaries. And why shouldn’t they? A government is ruling on behalf of all of us – isn’t it?
My call to the sector, then, is: don’t confine this debate to the role charities should play in scrutinising policy; this is important, but it is in service of a much bigger and vitally important role – to be robust contributors to civil society and political debate. Homeless people need somewhere safe to sleep. They are also entitled to have their voices heard.
Sue Tibballs, 29 March 2016 | A climate of fear that is damaging campaigning..
Sue Tibballs, 29 March 2016
The chief executive of a large grant-giving trust recently told me that the various government measures aimed at further regulating the charity sector were influencing the funding decisions of his trust and others. The bark of these measures might be worse than their bite, he said, but they were creating a climate of fear that was causing funders to contract.
He also said: “It feels like the politicians had expenses; the bankers had Libor; the media had hacking – so now it is the charity sector’s turn.” As if corruption in society is endemic and, look, even the charity sector is at it too! But what strikes me is that our crimes are not of the same order. We are under pressure for paying senior management too much, for over-aggressive fundraising and for being, well, just too big and well off. Some legitimate questions are raised, but none of them is in the same league as the other practices outlined above: the first one is in clear breach of the rules; the last two are illegal.
You could say that the sector’s main crime is that it is acting in a more commercial manner. But let’s not forget that governments have played a major part in driving this. Gone are the days of grants to pay charities’ core costs. Today they can secure public funding only for the provision of services or discrete projects. They are not seen as a good thing in themselves and supported, as they used to be. Charities can exist only if they bring in other funds.
Little of this has much to do with the campaign sector. Whether they are a local residents association, a small campaigning group or the campaign team within a bigger charity, most campaigners will not be using public funding. If they represent an overtly political cause, they have often chosen not to become charities in the first place. So campaigners are, by necessity, spending only that money they have secured from trusts, donations or trading. Funds to campaign with are therefore minimal, which is why the support of the trusts is so crucial. And campaigners are up against governments, corporates and the media, all of which campaign all the time and have incomparably more resources and power.
Part of our government is essentially one big campaign right now – to keep Britain in Europe. It regularly spends our money on campaigns. And now, I notice, it is using its campaigns to fundraise for itself. The This Girl Can campaign, launched by Sport England with £10m of lottery money, has set up a partnership with Marks & Spencer so that 8 per cent of all profits from apparel with the TGC logo goes to Sport England – which already gets £250m of public money each year. Wouldn’t most consumers think this was a charity fundraiser? And all this when the Charity Commission is telling charities how to manage their commercial partnerships. What next? Proceeds from men’s socks funding the probation service? Bras supporting the maternity services?
There are some questions to be asked of big charities – but also of this government. My real concern, however, is that this spat is causing damage to a campaign sector that cannot access public funds and relies heavily on trusts and foundations that now feel nervous. This collateral damage is absolutely not in the public interest.
Sue Tibballs, 12 February 2016 | Campaigning should be regarded as a profession..
Sue Tibballs, 12 February 2016
The chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation says the role of campaigners is now more important than ever
This is my first column as the new chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. As most will know, the foundation trains, supports and celebrates campaigners. I am myself a campaigner and have spent nearly 25 years campaigning chiefly around women’s issues and gender equality, but also on the environment and sustainability. I’m passionate about and fascinated by change, and have observed huge shifts in the dynamics of change.
When I started out, the idea that a commercial company could do good was anathema, and most comms strategies were driven by stunts and tactics aimed at engaging the media in order to reach people. Now some corporates are more progressive than government or even charities; everyone can reach and talk to everyone else directly, and traditional media increasingly finds itself outside the conversation. Old forms of organising – in workplaces, notably – are in decline. New ways of pursuing positive change are emerging – look at the burgeoning social enterprise sector. In many ways, power is more deconstructed and democratised.
In other ways, though, real power is polarising back towards almost pre-industrial models. Eye-watering disparities in the distribution of wealth and a retrenchment of social policy aimed at reducing inequality mean we have a new ruling class made up of the business owners, bankers and plutocrats who rule the roost. The richest 1 per cent of Brits control 50 per cent of the country’s wealth.
For all these reasons, the role of campaigners is more important than ever. Their role is giving voice to those who do not have one and standing up for the interests of people or things that tend to get overlooked, whether these are vulnerable or marginalised people, communities or the planet; holding to account those who do have power, and defending not just the right to – but the social value of – a vibrant, active civil society.
All these changes in turn bring new opportunities and challenges for campaigners. Tools and tactics are diversifying and getting more sophisticated. New theoretical frameworks have emerged, from behaviour change to social movement theory. Resources are getting tighter, so finding low-cost yet high-impact ways to effect change are key.
But campaigning still isn’t seen as a discipline or a sector in its own right. It still tends to get wrapped up with the wider voluntary sector, even though this has become increasingly dominated by super-sized service-delivery organisations and health research organisations. I think it is time for campaigning to be seen as its own discipline and campaigners as constituting a discrete profession. Fundraisers have this status and extensive bespoke support. I’d like to see the same for campaigners.
I’d like to see SMK build on its success in training campaigners to become a centre of excellence for campaigning and a professional hub for campaigners. I’d like to see a wider range of support and more tools available to help campaigners. I’d be very interested to hear from other campaigners about this idea. If reading this has sparked a thought, please get in touch with me at email@example.com.
26th November 2015 | New CEO for Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK)
26th November 2015
The Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) has appointed a new Chief Executive, Sue Tibballs OBE, who joins the charity on 4th January 2016. Sue succeeds Linda Butcher, who has been SMK’s CEO for the last seven years and leaves us at the end of 2015.
Sue has over twenty five years’ experience working at the forefront of the social change sector in the UK, including as a charity chief executive. The senior roles Sue has held previously include: CEO of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (now called Women in Sport); Projects Director of The Future Foundation; and Women’s Affairs Campaigner at The Body Shop.
Sue will have a full handover with Linda Butcher prior to her joining SMK, as part of a planned and smooth transition. Linda will remain involved with the charity as one of our SMK Associates – an experienced and skilled pool of freelancers who help to deliver our programmes and consultancy services across the UK and beyond. This will also assist continuity during the transition.
Speaking about her appointment, Sue Tibballs says: “I’m absolutely delighted to be joining the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) as its new Chief Executive. I have spent twenty five years working as a campaigner and believe passionately in the importance of people and communities being able to advocate effectively for what is important to them.
“The tools of social change, however, are changing fast, so high quality training and support are vital. Over the last ten years, SMK has built a strong reputation as the lead organisation in training and celebrating campaigners. This is a great track record on which to build and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to lead the organisation to what, I believe, is a very exciting future.”
Mike Schwarz, SMK’s Chair of Trustees adds: “May I say a big thank you to Linda Butcher on behalf of everyone at SMK for all her invaluable work for the charity over the last seven years.
“We are delighted that Sue Tibballs is joining SMK as our new Chief Executive. She brings a great deal of skills and experience to the role and the charity and we very much look forward to working with her as she takes SMK forward.”
Notes to Editors
For more information, please contact Sue Tibballs, CEO on 020 7697 4041.
About SMK and Sheila McKechnie
SMK is a charity with a unique remit – to connect, inform and support campaigners. SMK was set up in 2005 to commemorate Dame Sheila McKechnie, who died the previous year.
Sheila was a dedicated and effective campaigner, who spent much of her life championing change at Shelter, Which?/Consumers’ Association and elsewhere. She empowered individuals to recognise and assert their rights and made governments and businesses understand, implement and respond to the issues she campaigned on.