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Are campaigning charities losing their voice?

The latest annual report by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector is in the news today, and the panel’s chair, Sir Roger Singleton is not in a mood to mince his words. ‘The independence of voice, purpose and action in the voluntary sector is under real threat’ he tells us, and things are apparently getting worse.

The inquiry upon which the report is based heard from charities who felt increasingly unable to challenge policy or speak out on minority issues at either a national or local level. In some cases this was because they had gagging clauses built into public service delivery contracts but it also sounds like there’s a lot of ‘self censorship’ going on, where charities don’t even want to risk biting the hand which currently—or may in the future—feed them.

This is extremely worrying: core to the purpose of the charity sector is the representation of the people it exists to help; to advocate on their behalf, to stick up for them in the face of policy which lets them down. There is already an agreement between the government and the voluntary and community sector which outlines how the two parties work together. This Compact has been around for a while and is meant to safeguard the sector’s independence, including its right within the law to campaign and challenge Government policy and the right to manage its own affairs without undue interference.

But in these straitened times, where charities are sometimes fighting amongst themselves for scraps of funding, it is understandable why they would be nervous about sticking their head above the parapet. The loss of a contract or the ire of a public servant can these days make or break a small organisation, and at the end of the day who is going to stick up for a group of vulnerable people if the charity which is meant to represent them goes to the wall?

One way charities should think about getting around this is collaboration. The ‘c’ word is very much on my mind today, as this morning we launched a report with Impetus Trust looking at charity partnerships. Collaborating for impact mostly looks at how charities can work together to deliver public services, but collaborative campaigning can also be more effective than the sum of all its parts.

This approach also has the benefit of offering safety in numbers: if one organisation steps out to criticise government, they can be singled out and suffer the consequences. However if a group of charities speaks out together they cannot all be punished.

An example of this is the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), a group of over 50 charities which represents people who rely on disability benefits. With extensive reforms taking place in the welfare system, many of which are popular with the public and the media, the DBC campaigns for a fairer benefits system and is often at odds with government agenda. However as a large group of charities, including big names such as Mind, Scope and Mencap, they are more of a force to be reckoned with. This offers some of the smaller charities in the group the opportunity to make sure their beneficiaries aren’t forgotten, whilst they are protected by strength in numbers.

An independent charity sector is vital for a healthy society and clearly the current tough economic times are exacerbating tensions which are naturally going to exist between government and charities. We can’t just blame government; charities need to step up to the mark and have strength in their convictions. But we need to keep an eye on this, as an issue, as it would be very dangerous if funding and relationships really start to compromise our mission and values.

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