SMK Policy and News


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Sue Tibballs: It’s our campaigning that sustains the third sector

22 April 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: A climate of fear that is damaging campaigning

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: Changing attitudes is as vital as probing policy

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: Campaigning should be regarded as a profession

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


Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) Annual Report 2014-15

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s (SMK) 2014-2015 Annual Report is now live and on the website. The Report contains information about our programmes and activity and about the people we have worked with throughout the year, including the 2015 SMK Campaigner Award winners. *  

Please click here to access the 2014-15 Annual Report.

2014-15 marks SMK’s tenth anniversary and we are extremely proud of all that we have achieved in the last decade.

The 2014-15 Annual Report highlights what we have achieved in the last year alone; a year in which we have worked with hundreds of campaigners and helped thousands more – many of them first time campaigners.

During the year, we’ve also provided our first ever international programme, working with a range of organisations from Central and Eastern Europe, and run numerous well attended networking and inspirational events, including our residential event in Cheshire.

We’ve also developed our archive about Sheila McKechnie: The Mark of A Great Campaigner, with a range of materials, including a dedicated website, which is now live at And we’ve continued to provide a strong voice to ensure that campaigners’ rights are safeguarded, including by leading the debate around the Lobbying Bill.

Linda Butcher, SMK’s Chief Executive, says: “As our Annual Report highlights, 2014-15 was a year of real achievement for SMK: we reached more people; our geographical reach widened; and our programmes became even more effective in helping people to make a real impact and create lasting change.

“We couldn’t have done it without the help of our many supporters, both in 2014-15 and over the last decade, and I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you for all you continue to do on our behalf.”

* Nominations are now open for the 2016 SMK Campaigner Awards. Please click here for more information about the Awards and to nominate someone for an award.


Applications open for the eleventh annual SMK Campaigner Awards

26th November 2015

Applications for the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) Campaigner Awards 2016 opened on Thursday 26th November 2015.

SMK is the UK’s only charity dedicated to connecting, informing and supporting campaigners. The SMK Campaigner Awards recognise and celebrate the outstanding contribution that a new generation of campaigners are making towards achieving social, environmental and economic justice, both in the UK and abroad.

People can apply or nominate someone they know for an SMK Campaigner Award by visiting SMK’s website at Applications close at 1pm on Monday 8th February 2016. Award winners will be invited to attend a special ceremony at the House of Lords on Wednesday 13th April 2016.

Linda Butcher, SMK’s Chief Executive says: “The SMK Awards are unique. There is simply nothing else out there that recognises the importance and value of campaigning and campaigners, and in a wide variety of different categories. So please: if you know someone who you feel deserves to be nominated for an award, or even if you think that person is yourself, please apply. We look forward to hearing from you.”

The award categories and their sponsors and funders include:

Creating Change From Within Business – Forster Communications

Environmental Justice – Frederick Mulder Foundation

Gender Equality – Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

Health – Anthony Nolan

Housing and Homelessness – Crisis

People and Place: Local Campaigner – Local Trust

Social Justice – Shelter

Transport – Foundation for Integrated Transport

Economic Justice – TUC

Long-Term Achievement – SMK

Peoples’ Choice Award – Crowdfunded

Notes to Editors

Please contact Megan Poyiadzis, Events and Programmes Officer on 020 7697 4046.

About the SMK Awards  

The SMK Awards are for campaigners, whether it be in a national pressure group or campaigning charity, as well as people who are campaigning on a voluntary basis and are relatively new to campaigning as an activity.

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.


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.





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