Ed Miliband isn’t the only one on the receiving end of an attempted character assassination. The voluntary sector has also been subject to a concerted campaign of criticism over the last few months from a number of different quarters.

In August, the Daily Telegraph published a series of articles on excessive charity Chief Executive pay. Whatever their substance, such  reports  are undoubtedly damaging for trust in charities, most of which pay their Chief Executives a perfectly reasonable salary for doing a difficult job. Last month, Chris Grayling opened up another front. Writing in the Daily Mail he took explicit aim at the campaigning activity of charities and their use of the law to further campaigning objectives. He is not the only politician to take up this case, and the RSPCA, for example, has been criticised for what is  perceived to be an aggressive use of the law in their attempt to end cruelty to animals. Charities have also been swept up in the ‘Transparency in Lobbying Bill’, fuelling fears that, in effect, campaigning will be outlawed in the period running up to an election. It may sound paranoid to bundle these issues together, but there are clear signs that a body of opinion not convinced that advocacy, policy or campaigning are legitimate charitable activities is gaining some currency.

Unlike Ed Miliband, the voluntary sector has not been vocal or effective in coming to its own defence. NCVO and others have scored a few tactical victories, over the provisions of the Transparency in Lobbying Bill for example, but the sector more broadly has been unable or unwilling  to clearly articulate its story about the right to campaign in a democratic society.

This is a similar problem to the one faced by charities in relation to fundraising, although here we’re looking at a problem of the sector’s own making. The direct marketing techniques that charities routinely employ—street fundraising, door-to-door collections, telephone campaigns etc—still work well, but they are not liked by many members of the public, and over time will undermine the brand of UK charities. The public by and large still trust charities (a great deal more than they do politicians!), and there is a store of good will available, but by acting in their short-term individual interests charities are acting against their longer-term collective interest.

I heard a phrase coined by branding guru Wally Olins the other day: ‘individually strong, collectively weak’. It seems to perfectly sum up the problem the voluntary sector faces: although we have many strong, effective and admirable charities in the UK, the sector is collectively weak. And if the political environment is becoming less hospitable for charities, then that is a very real concern.

As with all collective action problems it is not one person’s responsibility to fix it. I think this creates an interesting opportunity for philanthropists: it won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who believe in campaigning as a tool for social change there is a position here to take a lead in creating a collective voice for the sector, and even to do some of the speaking. Dan Pallotta has mooted the idea of an International Charity Defence League—why don’t we start right here in the UK?

This blog was first published by Spear’s here.

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