Party conference season is now in full swing. Last week Glasgow, this week Brighton and next week Manchester have all been braced for the influx of party faithful and the droves who seek to influence them and win their favour. And amongst these droves—amongst the big multinationals, the trade bodies, the unions—some might be surprised to find a significant number of charities.

In 2012, over 30 charities sponsored at least one fringe event at the Labour or Conservative party conference, and at least a dozen had stands in the events’ exhibition halls. In addition to this, many charities send representatives to have a presence on the ground at conferences. This is by no means a costless business. Whilst charity rates are negotiable, having a stand or putting on a fringe event can cost thousands of pounds. Even if the costs are covered by sponsors, this is money that might have been spent elsewhere. Add to that the staff time (not to mention travel, food, accommodation) and some charities will be spending serious sums on their conference activities.

In some cases, this will represent good value for money. The party conferences can be an excellent opportunity to engage with the different parties and make them more aware of the aims and objectives that a charity is pursuing or of a specific campaign they are focusing on. Fringe events in particular can be an effective way of drawing together a range of people to discuss a certain agenda. More generally, and especially for charities involved in advocacy, the party conferences see a gathering of policy influencers and journalists that is pretty much unique.

But as a person who has spent far too much of my life at the party conferences, both as a think tanker and a special adviser, I do worry whether every charity that forks out to attend goes there with sensible  aims in mind, and whether they subsequently evaluate what their presence has achieved. I know this might be easier said than done and that measuring the impact of campaigning work can be challenging—but I do think it would be worth charities really considering, before they sign up , why they are going to conference.

In some case I suspect it’s mostly because ‘they feel they ought to’—they want to be seen there. We have all heard the analogy to  ‘an arms race’, with organisations worried that if they aren’t at conference, another charity working in their area might be there and have the opportunity to be noticed. In reality though, going to conference may not be the most cost-effective way by which they can achieve their objectives. If your aim is to talk to MPs, be aware that not that many go these days; and if civil servants are your target, keep well away from the conferences—they aren’t even allowed to attend!

One charity campaigner I spoke to suspects that a major reason why many of the big name charities go to conference is that it sends a message to some of their supporters that they mean business; and that if they didn’t go it could be interpreted as their being in trouble, or choosing to retrench. Not a bad motive if it ultimately helps with fundraising and influence—but a bit obscure surely? Sometimes such supposed motives probably cover up for the desire of the CEO or head of policy to go along for a fun day or two with their peers.

And where does it leave smaller charities, or those who cannot afford the time or money to send staff? As I said, third sector passes are available, but costs still add up. Does this leave us in a place where only some charities are able to have their say,  where the big boys and girls dominate and the smaller niche and local charities lose out (despite the efforts of organisations like NAVCA)? There are ways through this. Some charities already work together at conference—for example by co-sponsoring fringe events—but there is certainly room for more collaboration. Given the party leaders talk of the Big Society and our ‘One Nation Britain’, perhaps they could encourage this further by offering more discounts for organisations that team up?

Conference attendance for charities can be useful for both their mission and their finances. But in times of tight budgets, charities need to think hard about what they get out of conference and whether it’s worth it relative to all the other things they can spend time and money on.

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