There is a real sense that charity campaigning is under threat now more than ever. This month I take part in two events that will consider this - firstly, a roundtable on charity campaigning at National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO); and secondly, People Power 2013, our annual conference designed to help people - from the grassroots to charities - achieve their goals through campaigning.
In truth, grumbling about charity campaigning is not new. In 2003, NCVO's Stuart Etherington said:
"They claim one (wing) is made up of the fluffy, homely and traditional good causes that survive on charitable donations alone, while the other is made up of left-wing pressure groups staging protests and getting themselves arrested. The truth of course is that campaigning forms a crucial aspect of whole swathes of the voluntary sector."
Fast forward to 2013 and Stuart Etherington said:
"I am frankly at a loss to understand how, as a country, we've got to the point where children's charities are criticised for speaking up about child poverty." He rightly notes that "...it is one of charities' core roles to speak up on behalf of vulnerable people and that this right is enshrined in charity law."
These points are not dissimilar and go right to the heart of charity campaigning. Charities are set up because there is a need. And while fluffy bunnies and traditional forms of charity can be, and are, very helpful, they are also too often bandages rather than long-term cures. Like so many others, I got involved in charities and campaigning, yes to help people facing problems and hard times, but even more so to help find solutions to prevent more. In which case, you can't avoid getting involved in policy issues.
I was involved for many years in the service delivery side of charities, where we amassed a body of evidence to influence government, funders and other charities to run services better to achieve more sustainable results, and which would even save money in the long-term. What's not to like about that? If charities provided services for vulnerable people but never spoke out with and on behalf of vulnerable people, they can find themselves silent partners to Government or other decision makers. And this kind of silence makes you complicit not only in policy failures - but more specifically, in the devastation some of these failures will wreak on individuals and communities.
Charities do not use their voice as a stick to beat Governments with, they use it to support marginalised and vulnerable people to gain - or sustain - equality and justice. That does not make us 'political' with a big P, but as part of our charitable work, it is right and proper for us to talk about policies.
But let's be clear. It is imperative that charities do not become political bodies. Charities are trusted by the public because we put the individuals, groups and communities we support at the centre of our work, rather than act as unaccountable political lobbyists.
Where organisations use charitable status as a cover for primarily political objectives, it is vital that this is dealt with firmly by the Charity Commission.
The most important thing about charity campaigning is that we do it wherever we feel that it will help tackle root causes. To put it another way, charities must be allowed to be more than just be a sticking plaster. That is good for Government, it is good for trying to redress inequality and injustice across society, and it's good for the diverse individuals, groups and communities the charity sector is committed to.
For information about People Power, 24th April 2013, please see: http://www.peoplepower2013.org.uk/