Charities as Campaigners

Yesterday, listening to Radio 4 while I got ready to go to work, I was struck by an exchange between the Cabinet Minister, Liam Byrne MP, and Jill Kirby, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies. Liam Byrne was announcing a new Government funded research scheme to ‘identify and promote innovative ways for the third sector to act as a strong voice specifically for the most disadvantaged people in society’. In other words, the fund has been established to help charities strengthen their campaigning capabilities.

Jill Kirby is not a fan. She is of the opinion that charities should be service providers, not campaigners. She was particularly scathing about children’s charities, such as Barnardo’s, who have been pressurising the Government to live up to their promise to ‘end child poverty’, when they could be using their resources to help children on the ground. Kirby sums up her position in a comment piece in the Times, saying: ‘I don’t want to pay for another billboard or opinion poll. But to fund a place of safety for a child being beaten or abused – that’s a cause worth supporting any day’.

Of course it’s up to Kirby to decide where she donates her money, but I think she’s presenting a false choice here. For a small to medium sized, or newly established, charity, having a strong, well-researched campaigning message that can be taken to decision-makers for action and, yes, put on billboards can, in the best cases, achieve two things. Firstly, a campaign that gets good publicity can bring more in more donations to the charity from ‘ordinary’ people, which in turn can fund more safe places for children (for instance). Secondly, it could achieve the political change it asks for, addressing the roots of whatever problem the charity has been set up to address. Here I’m thinking about the Government’s commitment to ending child poverty. It’s quite clear to me why Barnardo’s would have an interest in holding the Government to account on this.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how this new fund takes shape. It’s not being administered by the Cabinet Office, but by Capacity Builders, and not many details are available just yet.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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