Every so often and with seemingly increasing frequency, the siren voices of parts of the media and certain politicians demand that charities cease campaigning. Some of these voices actually go further and demand that the Government passes legislation to silence charities.
For decades and indeed centuries, charitable organisations, especially those based in and working for communities of place and interest, have provided 'voice' for their beneficiaries and for the wider community. This has been recognised by politicians, regulators and the public alike as a legitimate and appropriate role for charities.
Such a voice can be exercised in terms of advocacy for individuals and communities and genuinely so, through campaigning for changes to public policy, practice and legislation. It has rightly involved promoting alternative and new policies, practice and legislation, as well as criticising existing and proposed ones.
Charities have rightly steered clear of direct involvement in party political debate, and from being perceived as being in favour of one or more political parties and / or against others. Obviously, sometimes those in power feel that attacks on their policies and programmes may seem to be partisan but this is very rarely the reality. Of course, it is also inevitable that charities will, from time to time, challenge the underlying political or economic basis of sets of policies. And sometimes, charities will disagree with governments, local authorities, politicians and political parties. This is part of the natural democratic process. Mature and reasonable politicians will understand this and should welcome the debate. They will not see such campaigning as seditious or unworthy of the historic charity sector.
If charities and civil society organisations had not campaigned over the last centuries, would issues as wide ranging as slavery, child labour, disability rights, animal rights and international development have been addressed in an enlightened manner? Who would have spoken up for the voiceless, the most marginalised and those denied rights and a voice even in a contemporary democracy? From where would politicians have obtained ideas and practical proposals for legislation and government action?
Our democracy, our society and our country would have been the poorer without charities speaking up and speaking out. There probably would have been less social progress; and some of the more harmful aspects of policy from various governments would have reached the statute book without challenge or even public debate. Charities know that if they are pragmatic as well as principled, they can achieve more than when they are dogmatic and isolationist.
The degree to which an individual charity campaigns must be a matter for its trustees. Some prefer to focus on service delivery whilst others have a greater emphasis on campaigning and policy work. And, of course many adopt a combination of the two positions and draw on their service activity to shape and inform their policy activity.
Charities should not have to fear losing public funding because they campaign. And they should be open with their non-public sector funders about how they plan to use their resources, including those from voluntary fundraising. Donors can then make informed choices. They do not need either the Government or the Charity Commission to make them on their behalf.
The national voices and representative bodies for the charity sector have spoken up in favour of the right to and value of campaigning. I believe that they now need to turn up the volume and make the arguments with even greater vigour.
Individual charity boards need to consider their position but I urge none to succumb to the intimidation of the media and those politicians who would have then act like lap poodles. As a trustee myself, I am clear that I have a duty to a charity and its beneficiaries to support engagement with politics and relevant campaigns for justice, fairness and the cause of the charity.
Now that the party conferences are drawing to a conclusion, let's hope that the attacks on charities for doing their duty will stop. That said, in the event that my 'hope' proves to be simply wishful thinking, then the charity sector must be ready to defend and promote its right and long tradition of contributing to democratic advance and evolution.