Chris Sherwood: How can charities make their case to government?

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By Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive, RSPCA 20 June 2022

For 20 years NPC has been helping philanthropists and charities to maximise social impact in the lives of the people they serve. To mark our 20th birthday, we’ve been talking to leading figures and people doing things differently to ask: Where next for social impact? In this essay, Chris Sherwood asks: How can charities make their case to government? Opinions are the author’s own.

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In the early days of the RSPCA, the question of ‘how we make our case to government’ would not have had the same meaning it does today.  

We were founded by a few MPs including William Wilberforce and a member of the House of Lords in 1824. The people updating our AGMs on the progress of animal welfare legislation, were the very same people introducing the Bills to Parliament. Like many change-making organisations in the 1820s, the line where the government stopped and the organisation started was blurred. 

Those founders were moved by the moral case for animal welfare which is still central to our work today. But the moral case – or indeed a case based on emotional reactions to the horrors of abuse, neglect and cruelty – can’t be the full story. To make a strong case, the economic and social arguments need to be just as strong. It is ultimately the hearts and minds of policy makers in the Treasury that need to be won over. A charity like the RSPCA has to show that a measure is not only good for animals, but also for human health and wellbeing and for the wider health of the economy. 

To achieve this, a clear and compelling argument needs to be articulated backed by robust evidence. Many charities have unique insights and data which put them in a very strong position to provide this evidence base. The RSPCA for example, holds data on trends in animal welfare, because our investigators are on the frontline of animal cruelty daily. Our data picked up an exponential rise in dogs with cropped ears over the past five years, a procedure that has been illegal in the UK for over 15 years. We presented the full case, backed by evidence, to Government, and they closed the loophole of allowing dogs to have this procedure abroad and be legally imported. This import ban should come into force next year.  

Alongside a fully developed case, backed by evidence, a charity needs to understand how Government actually works, to frame their ask. It sounds obvious but in my career I have seen policy asks that don’t talk to the way our government operates. Knowing whether an issue is devolved; which part of national or local government holds responsibility for it; whether you need primary or secondary legislation; whether a decision can be subject to judicial review or is subject to data protection or freedom of information legislation are all essential foundations for ensuring your conversations with Ministers, MPs and Civil Servants are worthwhile and you retain your credibility.  

A clear and compelling argument needs to be articulated backed by robust evidence. Many charities have unique insights and data which put them in a very strong position to provide this evidence base. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

Armed with your moral, social and economic case, evidence base and articulated policy ask, the final foundation element is your story; a good narrative that cuts through to the heart of the issue, and connects your issue with central conversations of our time such as social justice, sustainability, climate change and economic inequality in a relatable and repeatable way. The RSPCA, for example, has been highlighting the important relationship between animals and people. This has led to the UK Government establishing a new and innovative Animal Sentience Committee to scrutinise government policy.   

Having dealt with ‘what’ you are going say, the next question is the best ‘route to market’. Building coalitions and collaborations between organisations, individuals and groups can help to make a stronger case. The RSPCA, through our ambitious strategy ‘Together for Animal Welfare’, is moving into a more collaborative space, establishing partnerships beyond animal protection to amplify our impact. We deployed this approach in the passage of the recent Agriculture Act – the most significant farming legislation in 50 years. A coalition comprising the RSPCA, the National Farmers Union, Which?, the environmental sector and celebrities such as Jamie Oliver, not natural bed fellows, extracted concessions from the Government in the Bill – this was no small achievement given that Ministers were aiming to impose as few constraints on negotiating post-Brexit trade deals as possible.  

Collaborative approaches can also help to cut through the melee of competing voices trying to get their point heard. The clamour of charities and other interest groups such as business, think tanks and trade unions as well as grassroots direct action groups trying to catch the eye of the Government on their favourite issue shows no signs of slowing down. There are two approaches that can help here.  

You have to exploit whatever opportunity occurs before it is closed forever. Charities need to be nimble and not be afraid to change direction. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

The first is a ferocious focus on your specific audience and their needs. For example, not only can you now undertake precise polling to show Government how many of their voters would support a particular topic, you can also combine geographical polling with petitions to show each MP how many of their constituents have supported that measure. Knowing how many of your electors from the digital postbag could applaud you for taking a stance is a powerful argument. This was not possible a decade ago. The future will see much more campaign digitalisation to precisely target where you want your message to land. Exactly ten years ago we had the first Cabinet reshuffle announced via Twitter and, as Government Ministers themselves become more digitally savvy, the power of social media as a lobbying tool will only increase.  

The second is to genuinely say something new, or something the same but in a different way. In the furore around the Australia free trade deal we produced a simple infographic which compared Australian animal welfare standards with British animal welfare standards. It presented that information in a new way, met the needs of the audiences to convey detailed information simply, and attracted very high engagement. We didn’t know that it was that piece of content that was going to secure our space in that debate, but once we realised what was happening, we were able to capitalise on it rapidly. You have to exploit whatever opportunity occurs before it is closed forever. Charities need to be nimble and not be afraid to change direction.  

It is age old wisdom when it comes to making a case, lobbying, and influencing, but personal relationships really do count. Investing the time in building these relationships and maintaining them over the course of careers pays dividends when you need advice on breaking through deadlocks, or a trusted conversation about next steps. Being useful to the government when it aligns with your principles does not stop you criticising them when it is required.  

Being useful to the government when it aligns with your principles does not stop you criticising them when it is required. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

And finally, I’ve yet to come across an issue without an interest group on both sides. Even on issues that would seem to be indefensible. For example, whilst there may not be a trade body lobbying for the right to force feed geese, another practice that has been illegal in the UK for decades, there is a group in Government that advocates that it is not their job to tell people what to eat and if you want to buy or import foie gras from across the channel you should not be stopped from doing so. It can be tempting to try to tackle the opposition’s arguments (even spurious ones) head on, and sometimes this is the right thing to do. But often simply presenting a better story, with a stronger case and evidence base can be more effective. Making the case that the UK should be leading the way in animal welfare, that this is supported by the British public and a potential benefit of Brexit, is more effective than being seen to be making the case for a ‘nanny state’. 

Most of all, the key to securing government influence is to study what your own and other organisations are doing, and learn from it. Across the charity sector we have people with huge expertise and track records of creating change, and organisations innovating and piloting new ideas in this space. By sharing what we have learned and pushing ourselves to try new approaches we find new ways to make our case even more compelling, thereby achieving more change for the causes we serve. 

What should NPC be doing? 

NPC has an important role to play in helping charities construct high impact campaigns and advance their cause by helping them to make the best use of their data and insights.


We hope you find these essays and interviews engaging and thought provoking. We’d love to hear what you think the future holds, and what you believe NPC should be focusing on. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #20yearsofNPC or through our events. As a charity ourselves we rely on the generosity of those who value our work to help us to continue to produce research and guidance to support the sector in maximising social impact. Visit the 20 years of NPC page to find out more. 

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