There is nothing wrong with charities campaigning (or taking out newspaper ads)

By Sue Wixley 25 January 2011

Should charities be seen and not heard? Or perhaps they should be neither seen nor heard? It looks like some of the members of the parliamentary Public Administration Committee, which met last week, hold these rather patronising views about charities.

The MP for Dover and Deal Charlie Elphicke, for example, told the Select Committee that he thought charities focus too much on campaigning. As reported by David Mills (the brains behind The Guardian’s excellent Voluntary Sector Network), Mr Elphicke argued that ‘good charities’ are those that ‘deliver services directly to beneficiaries’. Other charities (apparently nobody used the word “bad”) are those that spend too much time campaigning. The NSPCC and Shelter were cited as prime examples of these “non-good” charities.

At NPC we define good charities as those that are achieving their mission and bad ones as those that aren’t. (And of course we recognise that there are lots of charities that fall between these two poles.) We think that taking a position on the method or approach a charity uses—whether they deliver frontline services or campaign for policy reform for example—is less helpful than understanding what they are achieving.

Indeed, in some circumstances, charities that actively and noisily campaign on an issue can achieve as much if not more than those on the frontline, particulary when they are working to address the underlying cause of a problem. To use an example from my own experience: charities that clear landmines and treat landmine survivors are providing vital services, but doesn’t it make sense to have charities campaigning for a ban of antipersonnel landmines at the same time? In the end, it could be this campaigning that ends up saving more lives. In many cases these dual roles are played by the same charity, as in the case of both NSPCC and Shelter, since neither are solely advocacy-focused or service-delivery charities.

According to Third Sector, charities were also criticised in the Commons’ committee for spending money on full-page press advertisements. It is not clear if these are adverts for fundraising or for campaigning purposes, but it does seem odd that anyone would expect charities to operate without the marketing tools available to others, whether a commercial company or a political party. I am pretty sure the ads must be effective, otherwise the charities wouldn’t be shelling out the large amounts required.

Again, the focus should be on what charities achieve, not the methods they use.