Rachael Maskell: Charities must get inside the political system to force real change

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By Rachael Maskell, Member of Parliament for York Central and former Shadow Charities Minister 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, Rachael Maskell shows how charities must get inside the political system to force real change. Opinions are the author’s own.

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The laws and restrictions around political advocacy are suffocating a civil society desperate to race up stream and stop the bodies falling in the river, rather than waiting to pull them out. Warning governments that they are failing to provide a lifeline, and may even be the cause of the misery, means reaching into the political sphere. But knowing how far your campaign can go is another challenge in itself. 

While the safety net of civil society and the dedicated service of its army of volunteers is what makes society happen, to shape that society is the space charities need to occupy. Case studies come across their paths each moment; real lives, real stories, demanding that ‘the system’ pivot in a different direction to bring real change. Yet to enter the political realm is difficult, if not illegal. 

Charity champions have entered both the House of Commons and House of Lords as MPs and Peers, on many occasions, only to find themselves sucked into a system which barely pauses to see what charities see, before dashing to the next crisis. As parliamentarians straddle the ravine between constituency case work and Westminster advocacy, they come up against the dominance of bureaucracy, party systems and government priorities drowning them out, no different to when they served in their charities before. 

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So, we need our charities to be ‘small p political’ and to use their power to bend the curve of history and bring the radical transformation that their founders once dreamed of and they work tirelessly to achieve. 

Campaigning from the outside, yes, but penetrating the political space, absolutely. Politicians of all ilk are willing to justify their points by quoting a statistic hard researched by charities but are rarely able to shift the dial; tomes of weighty reports never get such airing. That is why we have to talk politics. The business of charities is to do everything to support their beneficiaries, and that means challenging and changing the frameworks of society. 

So, accepting this principle, which I value, how does a Minister know how to dialogue with just short of 170,000 registered charities, not to mention the other parts of civil society. They would need an agreed point of contact, who can present them with an agreed list of priorities. The sector needs to get organised.  

The business of charities is to do everything to support their beneficiaries, and that means challenging and changing the frameworks of society. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

The specialist collectives which have emerged as coalitions of organisations have been effective at bringing order and focus. I strongly advocated for a space for deliberative democracy to determine priorities, akin to citizens assemblies. We see the power of such lobbies, like the CBI or TUC. Business has got this off to a tee and learnt how to get their way. Rather than the power of money, charities have the power of people with lived experiences and powerful testimonials which are hard to ignore. 

Once priorities are established, then organising to utilise the power of the sector is essential. The challenge is that there is so much need that everyone is trying to shout together. MPs’ diaries are overflowing with charity receptions, drop-ins, zooms and events in Westminster. Lured by photo opportunities, pledge signing and the occasional slice of cake, MPs spend minutes listening to charities desperate to have their cause heard or research read, often with their advocates with lived experience condensing their life stories into memorable soundbites, before being whisked away to the next engagement.  

Inboxes are filled with email campaigns pleading with their representatives to vote on clauses of legislation, to which MPs carefully craft their response to justify whatever action they’ve taken no matter what it is. 

All these issues are so important. If the sector organised, had one great focus that bombarded ever tier of power from every angle, and really used its collective power, then society would demand change and politicians would need to act if it were to maintain the confidence of the people. 

The charity sector needs to get organised, like the CBI or the TUC. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

We have seen those moments of change; Marcus Rashford forcing a U-turn to address child food poverty, or the National Autistic Society seeing the first Bill dedicated to its beneficiaries. Over the years, trade unions have won rights for workers, and, thanks to campaigners, the climate crisis can no longer be sidestepped. At those moments, civil society fulfils its purpose.  

Perhaps the most powerful actor is the constituent with lived experience who is the persistent campaigner who turns up at surgeries and demands action. I recall the late Dame Cheryl Gillan’s endless campaign for Archie Hill to have Translarna prescribed for his Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Others joined her cause and eventually the Government caved. 

The most powerless are often the most powerful. As their small voice enters the soul of a politician, their cause rises to change other hearts and minds. The sector is not short of people with a story to tell, it just needs to hold the focus of the political, civic and media space for long enough to bring about change. 

I will be blunt, charities do need funding to be able to move into this space, to provide sufficient headroom to campaign and serve. For meeting the demand is relentless as demands ever grow and the state’s capacity buckles.  

Charities need to be understood as holding the solutions, respected as co-producers of services, pooling their knowledge and understanding of the real world as it leads the political. Refreshing old Compacts are crucial and investment in long term funding and stability essential.  

The most powerful actor is the constituent with lived experience. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

Parliament also has a role. It needs to create space for charities too. To hear what they are saying, to make time for them to be heard. To ensure that charities have the tools, and yes, the laws, to enable not supress.  

Government really needs to prioritise. It cannot do its role without charities doing theirs. I have consistently advocated for the sector to move back into the heart of the Whitehall machine, either the Cabinet Office or the Levelling Up department. It has been lost in DCMS, a minor spending department. The charities brief should be in a powerful policy department; shaping the future, not just responding. 

So keep going with the research and reports, the letter writing campaigns and the receptions, come use this Parliament building and fill it with your presence, fill our streets with your voices and the media with your demands. But organise and focus, that river is running ever faster, and you need to get up stream. 


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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