What do you do if the public don’t believe in your cause?

Political parties may not worry too much about this – the obvious answer is to follow public opinion – and increasingly, that is where they head. But what to do if you are a charity with a cause that increasingly few of the public believe in is a very big issue indeed, especially as this is where charities are often most important.

The recent British Social Attitudes report reveals a hardening of attitudes in a number of areas and less tolerance of those one might think of as being in need. The numbers wanting a big reduction in immigration have risen from 39 to 51% since 1995, while in 2011, 37% of the public believed that most people on the dole were ‘fiddling’.

Even more striking results are reported on support for the disabled. NatCen, which carried out the survey, says that ‘support for extra spending on benefits for disabled people who cannot work has fallen by 21 percentage points since 1998, and by 10 percentage points in the last three years’.

Recent stories in the news, for example, about how disabled people will lose out under the new Universal Credit and be worse off when Disability Living Allowance is replaced with Personal Independence Payments, demonstrate how vital fair access to disability benefits is. But as the figures above, and widespread negative coverage of welfare claimants, show, there is little public appetite for investing more in this area (or even slowing down the rate of cuts).

We can see that politicians are tacking towards public perceptions. But what should charities do?

Some become quieter in their campaigning. Rather than just being very public they try to work in a more ‘under the counter’  way. Campaigners, for instance, from the Prison Reform Trust, realised that to reduce the number of children in prison, they would do better to focus on the magistrates and decision-makers, and show them how unfair and, indeed, inefficient it is, rather than try to persuade the general public who still – many years after the shocking Jamie Bulger child-murder case – probably think that more, not less, children should be locked up. The strategy proved effective, so why not?

Others wonder about how to move forward. On disability, for instance, the head of one of the leading mental health charities, Mind, decided to resign from the Government’s review panel for the Work Capability Assessment. He felt that being quiet and having only marginal influence was the wrong strategy when the general direction was wrong, a tough decision that by no means all charities make.

In my time working as an adviser to the last Government, we were lobbied very effectively by many children’s charities to do more and more on child poverty. In some ways, these public campaigns gave us more space to move – since the public have always been a little sceptical that, in the UK, children are in poverty in the same way that they clearly are in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance.

We did what we could, with increases in tax credits and so on, but got little if any credit from the child poverty lobby whose members were passionate about the issue and who saw no higher priority for government largesse.

Today there is much less noise on the child poverty issue (with the honourable recent exception of Save the Children) and some of the charities tell me that it is just not effective to campaign on an issue which the Government of the day is not interested in – it just wastes resource and time.

Are they right? Yes and no. Of course, resource has to be husbanded. But if charities are not raising the unpopular issues and giving the dispossessed a voice – the needs of asylum-seekers, the rights of people with schizophrenia, the problems of drug addicts, and even those who are in a mess as a consequence of their own decisions – then who will?

Raising money to pursue these campaigns is hard. The public give to the ‘deserving poor’ – and to those who can provoke emotion and sympathy – but much less to harder cases. Often charitable foundations and individual philanthropists are crucial to allow things to happen.

For a compassionate, caring society which tries in different ways to look after all its people, we surely need these charities which look after the hardest cases and try to change public views, not just follow them.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the MJ.     

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