Polly Neate: Can charities achieve social justice?

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By Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter 27 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, Polly Neate asks: Can charities achieve social justice? Opinions are the author’s own.

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If we can’t achieve social justice, why are we even here? #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

If we can’t achieve social justice, why are we even here? If all we do is pick up the pieces of the systemic and institutional failures that ruin people’s lives, then we’re part of the cycle that perpetuates suffering and guarantees our organisational survival through complicity. It means we’re part of a system that treats homelessness, addiction, poverty, and abuse as solely for the individual to resolve, when we can’t help but know that society itself, and the rules (legal and cultural) that shape it, exacerbate and even cause the destruction of individual lives.

So achieving social justice means systemic change; and that’s not just about lobbying government, important though that is. At Shelter we’re finding out how much of our resource has to go into challenging and changing institutional injustice and system failure. It’s a lot. And it takes a lot to ensure a whole organisation leans in, chooses its battles wisely and perseveres – understanding that quick wins are too often just an opportunity to shout about success and leave it there, when they should be only the start.

The quick win is not the real change. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

Achieving social justice takes everyone. At Shelter, we are mobilising our public affairs, policy expertise, communications and brand, legal team – more recently our services too, as well as donors and funding partners.

In our world of homelessness and unaffordable, unliveable housing, there is one big change that would transform the landscape, almost put us out of business: enough decent homes that people on low incomes can afford to rent. That’s the Big Goal. We are constantly reviewing our approach to making it happen. Quick win it is not.

At the same time, though, we are taking on the systems we can get at right now, and – we hope – mobilise more and more people in the service of that Big Goal. That last bit isn’t easy. We don’t yet fully understand the journey from joining with people to change their own situation to engaging them in a wider campaign to change the country. Advice welcome!

Nevertheless change is happening, both nationally and locally, that shows charities can not only win campaigns but win social justice – not the same thing. There are examples from many other organisations, but here are some of ours.

At Shelter we’ve been campaigning against “No DSS” policies in renting since not long after I joined as CEO. This outdated term is still used by landlords or letting agents who refuse to rent to people on benefits. It’s ubiquitous, iniquitous and causes homelessness. We realised it could also amount to indirect discrimination under the Equality Act, because it disproportionately impacts women, people of colour, disabled people – all groups who are more likely to claim benefits.

Our strategic litigation team and local services mobilised to find people who could pursue this through the courts. Meanwhile we targeted letting agents and landlords. We then lobbied the online platforms and made an early ally in Zoopla who removed all such adverts and helped win others over. We targeted lenders, with Nationwide and Natwest leading by removing “No DSS” clauses from buy-to-let mortgages. Finally we won in the courts with cases proving indirect discrimination on the grounds of sex and disability. But even that isn’t enough: we are still naming and shaming landlords, and directly supporting clients to challenge unlawful practices. It’s a great example of a continuing struggle for social justice, transforming what in 2018 was one of the most common issues faced in our local services. It’s a long game, played by many teams working together.

A better-known example was the evictions ban during the pandemic. We lobbied the government and they did it. Except they didn’t. Legally, the change they put into legislation didn’t hold water. We told them repeatedly and they wouldn’t listen, so we went public. The then Secretary of State told the Today Programme I was talking nonsense when I said the ban wouldn’t work. But that same afternoon, the proposed legislation was changed. And even then, the job wasn’t done. We mobilised our helpline, local services and comms teams – especially social media – to ensure people knew what to do when they received an eviction notice. And we lobbied again twice to get the ban extended. Another struggle for social justice where the quick win wasn’t the real change.

During lockdown, the government’s Everyone In initiative took thousands off the streets – thanks to the charities on the ground. But our services were still seeing people left out, particularly those with no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status. We supported Mr Ncube in court to argue that councils had powers to accommodate him despite his immigration status. He won. But it proved impossible to get the government to amend the guidance to local councils so that “Everyone In” actually meant everyone. So we sent our own guidance to every local authority. Important steps on the road to social justice, but the horror of “no recourse” remains.

At the local level we are partnering with local communities and much smaller organisations to understand what role a large charity can and should play in their fight for social justice. We are committed to a fundamental shift in our role from picking up the pieces left by system failure, to using our work with individuals and communities to understand how that system failure can be challenged and even stopped. This is a huge change for colleagues experienced in “service delivery”. Their courage in embracing it has been humbling. It has involved changes in role for local leaders and colleagues on the front line, as well as deployment of new roles such as community organisers.

The successes are already mounting up and the mobilisation both locally and nationally that we first set out in our 2019 ten-year strategy has begun. Our ten-year ambition is that by working with us to achieve change, more people will see that their struggles are part of a national housing emergency that cripples the country. And then they will work with us to end it, forcing the government to act and build a new generation of decent social homes.

But boy do we have a long way to go, at Shelter and across the sector, to move from traditional services that are an essential crisis intervention but nonetheless an active part of the cycle of deprivation, and campaigns that too often stop short of lasting change. As a sector we rightly take pride in our collective struggle for social justice. We also need to understand what it takes.

As a sector we rightly take pride in our collective struggle for social justice. We also need to understand what it takes. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

What should NPC be doing? 

It would be great for NPC to help charities to measure real change. It’s never easy and because of that, many charities’ KPIs reflect the activities or outputs that might lead to the change, rather than the change itself. I’d also like to see a way of understanding how charities break cycles rather than become part of dysfunctional systems.


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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