Over recent months, there has been a steady drip feed of articles and posts criticising the voluntary sector for its cosy relationship with government.
Many of these posts point to the large swathes of government money received by the voluntary sector and its perceived lack of independence. Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome argued that the “voluntary sector has become so dependent upon government funding that it is hardly voluntary at all”. A recent article by Ed Howker at the Spectator also laments that many charities have now become “quasi-governmental organisations.”
The vast majority of these articles also express a preference for smaller, locally based charities undertaking frontline work, and are highly critical of larger, professionalised campaigning organisations.
These articles undoubtedly raise some important points – as campaigners we must not let our relationship with Government cross over from critical friend to paid lackey; we must be ever mindful of talking on behalf of people rather than enabling them to talk for themselves; and above all else, maintain a clear focus on the needs of our beneficiaries. Only through due care and attention to these issues will we be able to stay the right side of the dividing line between political organisation and seeking to influence in order to fulfil our charitable objectives.
There remains, however, much to refute within these articles. Campaigning should not be a dirty word. As a sector, we need to mount a robust defence of campaigning and the role that it plays in our democracy. It is legitimate and valuable activity. Campaigning by charities across a broad range of issues has often energised and provoked public debate in a way that has left traditional politics in their slipstream. Many would point to the successes that campaigners have made over many years – slavery, women’s rights, the increased profile of climate change, the smoking ban. I could go on and on. At a time when trust in politics has hit an all time low, and the Westminster bubble becomes more self-absorbed by the day, campaigners have an essential role to play ensuring that a diversity of voices are listened to, and not just those who find it easiest to make their voices heard.
I would also argue that making a case for small and local versus large professionalised charities is a false dichotomy. It goes without saying that we need to preserve strong grassroots, but it is essential that larger charities can continue to giving a voice to the excluded and deliver key services. Being professional does not automatically result in a disconnect from our beneficiaries, instead it helps create a powerful combined voice.
In the words of Reverend J. Graham Smith “for too long society has expected, and restricted, charities to providing the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. With expertise in their field, they should be permitted to erect the fence at the top. “
This issue will undoubtedly arise at the Campaigns Conference next week, where both Ed Howker and Tim Montgomerie will be present. It’s important that we do not allow this outdated philanthropic view of the voluntary sector to go unchallenged.
Chloe is Parliamentary Officer at NCVO. Ed Howker and Tim Montgomerie will be speaking at the Campaigns Conference next week.