THE BLOG

Why the Third Sector Must Be Political

13/07/2015 16:24 BST | Updated 13/07/2016 10:59 BST

"We don't campaign." "We're not political." "We just provide services." Three phrases, uttered frequently by fellow CEOs in the third sector, that I'm sick of hearing.

Every charity was set up to address a need, to support or advocate for people who are left behind by mainstream services. Or, in our case, to support people whose safety is compromised by laws that discriminate against them and police that too often see them as problems to solve rather than members of the public that they are paid to serve and protect. So, the law and its enforcers are one of the main problems. If we didn't speak out to change those laws or challenge unacceptable policing wouldn't we be neglecting our duty?

The ultimate goal of every charity should be to help create a society where they are not needed. For most, such a society may be a long way off or even unlikely to ever exist but that's not to say that we should be silent on the changes required to get there. Charities should be both idealistic and pragmatic: idealistic in our campaigning and pragmatic in our service delivery.

By providing services and meeting a local or national need we become influencers. We also have a direct link to those we support: the true experts. Napoleon Bonaparte was right about one thing: in politics, stupidity is not a handicap. Policy-makers, however much they try to convince us otherwise, are not experts. They are too often driven by populism, founded on their desire to be re-elected, or, for those with front-bench ambitions, a blind, unprincipled loyalty to their Party. If we don't speak out to inform them and educate them others will and we might not like the policies or laws that we end up.

Being political isn't about telling people to vote a certain way, it's about trying to bring about change. Being political is advising local authorities on policies that affect your service users. Being political is advocating for those you support when they access mainstream services. Being political is raising awareness about some of the needs you were established to address. You don't have to chain yourself to the gates of Parliament to be political.

In our area of work, ending violence against sex workers, most politicians are blinded by either ideology or ignorance or both. The work we do makes us an authority on the issue and with that comes a responsibility to advocate for change. If our mission is to improve the safety of sex workers how can we remain silent when policies are introduced that will harm them?

Many third sector organisations are reluctant to speak out for fear of upsetting potential funders. This is a short-sighted and naïve approach. On sex work policy, there was a period under New Labour when those determined to eradicate sex work at whatever cost had the ear of the Government. This was not due to a failure of advocacy on the part of harm reduction services but to the ideological position of those in power. Harm reduction, human rights and safety dropped from the agenda. Rescue and the abolition of sex work become the dominant discourse. Evidence and sex workers' own accounts were ignored. It became incredibly difficult to get funding for harm reduction and evidence-led service delivery while the rescue industry, ideologically determined to eradicate sex work, flourished. The legacy of this period is still felt today. Organisations disappeared and many of those that remained had to scale back or redefine their values.

The lesson? Charity funding is influenced by the dominant discourse. Unless you want your organisation to be a chameleon, changing your values and principles to meet the political climate of the day then you need to be involved in advocacy. If the welfare of those who you are there to help isn't motivation enough then do it for your own survival.

Most of us could get more money and have more resources at our disposal in the private sector or even in the public sector. We do what we do because we identify with those for whom we advocate and are disgusted at the injustices they face. Surely we are doing a profound disservice to them if we choose to remain silent rather than joining with them in calling for changes that will improve their lives.