Sara LLewellinSara Llewellin was appointed chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust in July 2009. She is on the Governing Council of the European Foundation Centre, is the Vice-Chair of the Association of Charitable Foundations, and is a trustee of Charity Bank and serves on its Credit Committee.

Why do charities campaign on social issues? From where do they get their mandate and what are the related governance responsibilities of their trustees?

The past year has seen a concerted effort by politicians (not all of them and not all of one hue either) to cast doubt on the legitimacy of charity campaigning. While it’s not for everyone, and must rightly not be conducted along party political lines, it is a democratic entitlement with a long and noble tradition.

It is one of civil society’s fundamental functions to hold government to account. To do this responsibly requires us to generate and facilitate collective debate on ethical matters, as “honest brokers” seeking the well-being of our charitable beneficiaries.

Charity trustees are the guardians of their charitable missions. They are honour-bound to use resources in the most impactful way possible to advance that mission. For some, this means providing emergency services for those in crisis; for others, intervening earlier to prevent future problems. For some of us, it means addressing structural issues and creating a conduit for the voices of marginalised people to be heard in the corridors of power.

For many charities, it makes no sense at all to continually ameliorate symptoms without looking for, and voicing, potential solutions. The suggestion that this is partisan political activity shows a misunderstanding of the role of civil society over time. Our sector has provided this “critical eye” for over a century and in the context of successive administrations of varying political colours.

Boards at the Barrow Cadbury Trust have been supporting work which seeks to improve society at the structural level for nearly a century; it’s nothing new. Our founders, together with others, set up the first juvenile court in the world in Birmingham and then lobbied government until such provision was made mandatory in the Children’s Act of 1908.

Our current board, still one mainly of direct descendants, sets clear strategic aims for each of our programmes of work and sees its role as that of “impact scrutineer”. They ask what is the change we want to see in the world, how will it be achieved and who is best placed to help bring it about? We build alliances for social change and use all our resources (money, clout, brand, intellectual capital, premises, endowment) to strengthen the hands of the change makers.

Our mandate comes from being independent and non-partisan—which doesn’t mean neutral, but being on the side of a better, fairer society. We are part of civil society, not just a supporter of it. We genuinely believe no one tribe, faith or party has a monopoly of good ideas; hence we work to build broad alliances around the advancement of the common good. My trustees think to do less would be a dereliction of their duty.

Charity campaigning is under greater scrutiny than ever, and so I’m delighted to be speaking at NPC’s upcoming event—Campaigning for social change: the role of trustees—to discuss its continuing relevance and best practice.

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