32% of people think charities should lobby government but 24% think they do this

Symptoms and causes

By Alex Van Vliet 7 March 2014

On Monday, Chris Grayling told an audience of charity leaders they’re putting too much emphasis on campaigning at the expense of service delivery. On Tuesday, a conference of charities and grantmakers convened by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation asked ’Is campaigning really worth the money?’ On Wednesday, the same topic was firmly in the cross hairs of Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs at NPC’s own ’state of the sector‘ event—the Institute’s report ‘The Sock Doctrine’ calls into question the right of charities that accept government grants to lobby policymakers.

If the rest of this week carries the momentum of a certain Craig David song, I worry about the temperature of comments by Sunday.

At least I take comfort in the findings of our recent study, Mind the Gap, based on polling by Ipsos MORI and launched at the debate, which suggests public attitudes are a little more sympathetic. Indeed, a greater proportion (32%) think charities should be lobbying government than believe they actually are (24%).

Speaking alongside Mark Littlewood, Ruth Sutherland of the counselling charity Relate put forward an elegant defence of charity campaigning. A service can help solve an individual’s problems, but it won’t affect the circumstances that gave rise to that problem in the first place—charities therefore need to treat the symptoms and the cause.

Noble stuff, undoubtedly. But I think one of the factors driving criticism can be found in what my colleague Rob Abercrombie calls our ‘individually strong, collectively weak’ approach. As a sector, we have failed to present a convincing case for how and why campaigning achieves change—and as a result, why it deserves funding and protecting when resources are thin. At the Calouste conference, the chair Brian Lamb recalled one colleague describing campaigning as ’one of the last great amateur pursuits in the NGO field’. This characterisation, I believe, rings true.

While impact practice—the discipline of planning, measuring, understanding and learning from our impact—has progressed among charities and social enterprises delivering services to their beneficiaries, the same cannot be said for campaigning. One way of understanding this is to look at how impact is reported.

One month a year, Movember transforms thousands of men’s upper lips into occasionally successful displays of masculinity—all in the name of charity. Movember publishes ‘report cards’ for their projects, showing the objectives, outcomes and learning of their grants in an accessible way.

This commitment to transparency is commendable—one such card shows how a medical research grant led to a breakthrough in identifying nine genomic variants which predispose testicular cancer. In contrast, the impact report for their campaigning work is an arms race of raised awareness. They state somewhat implausibly that Movember’s dissemination of men’s health messages reached 878 million people in the UK.

I choose Movember not because it’s are any better or worse at reporting impact than other charities or funders, but because it encapsulates the other gap. Overclaiming impact does its good work—and that of campaigning more widely—no favours.

We want to see greater discipline in impact practice and wider sharing of learning among campaigners. NPC will continue to explore the question of campaign impact over the coming months, and we encourage your thoughts and contributions.