There are reasons to worry about our democracy. We’ve been hearing about fake news, foreign interference, dark ads on Facebook, and political parties breaking electoral law. In the run up to the general election, headlines have been flooded with tactical voting, youth disengagement and millions of people missing from the electoral register. People feel they have no influence over national decision-making. They don’t vote because they don’t believe it will change anything. More and more people say they are not interested in politics or government.
But democracy matters to everyone. Democracy enables people to have their voice heard. It should ensure that decision-making takes into account all evidence and perspectives. It should ensure that power in our society is distributed more fairly.
All social purpose organisations have a vested interest in protecting and promoting democracy. And there is plenty of great work being done across the sector—organisations like Involve, Electoral Reform Society, Voting Counts, Unlock Democracy, mySociety and Shout Out UK, to name just a few, are dedicated to democratic reform, improving education and awareness, increasing engagement, and strengthening accountability.
Yet there is also much more that the sector could do. Yes, there are valid concerns about the Lobbying Act—charities recently called for an end to the ‘gagging law’ and greater freedom to speak out and campaign for positive change. But democracy is about more than campaigning. It is about understanding and representing the views of people, providing better evidence for improved decision-making, ensuring everyone can participate in democratic processes, and ensuring that those processes serve us effectively.
Here are a few things many charities could do to make democracy work for everyone:
Understand and represent the views of people
50% of people say that political parties and politicians don’t care about people like them. Social sector organisations have an opportunity to understand what’s really going on by talking to people and listening to their views—Groundswell is a great example of how organisations can conduct peer research. Karin Woodley of Cambridge House has outlined useful thoughts on ‘radical listening’. It might be about convening people and facilitating discussions to make sure issues are fully explored. Many organisations find it beneficial to co-design their services with the people they support. Or it may be useful to consider direct, single-issue campaign tools such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees to enable people to express their views. The sector has a crucial role to play in ensuring people’s voices are heard and their priorities are represented accurately.
Share information about issues relating to your cause
Non-profits play a key role in providing information to people in ways that are accessible to them, so they are better informed, better able to make decisions, and more motivated to act. Democracy Club crowdsources information from volunteers and creates nationwide datasets of elections, candidates, polling stations and election results. They develop websites and Apps like WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk and WhereDoIVote.co.uk to make the information accessible to voters. This model could be applied to other issues and sectors.
Share information about democratic processes
Without making assessments on political parties, organisations can support people to engage with democratic processes and explain why it is in their interests. Alzheimer’s Society posted a blog outlining the right to vote for people with dementia. They outlined some of the barriers voters may experience and offered guidance on how to navigate registration and voting processes. In response to low levels of voter registration among Muslim communities, the Muslim Council of Britain collaborated with Migrants Organise to run a day of activities aimed at promoting voter registration. Renters Vote, a campaign run by ACORN, aims to mobilise those who are often excluded by running voter registration drives, developing a renter manifesto, and highlighting where parties stand on big issues affecting renters.
Hold others to account
The charity sector plays a vital role in holding the public and private sectors to account. Full Fact seeks to half the spread of misinformation and disinformation. They check facts and provide educational tools to help ensure that people have reliable information, encourage participants in the public debate provide full and accurate information, and increase awareness of how unsubstantiated claims arise and are spread. But you don’t have to be a dedicated fact-checking organisation to contribute. Organisations can identify where statements about their work and cause are false or misleading. Those that work with the media may be able to help build the capacity of their partners to find and share accurate information.
Charities in the UK are, by definition, not political. It’s the foundation of the trust the public have in them and it’s a fact that gives them the power and perspective to fairly represent people and causes that are often overlooked. But while they are not political, they are civic institutions, just as much a part-of and involved-in our democracy as any other. Some might find it a difficult line to walk, but charities mustn’t shy away from their role in the democratic process. We’ve had an election but big questions about our democracy remain and charities must be more involved.
Can charities get involved in the levelling up agenda? Should charities get involved in this agenda? And what can they do to shape and change it to make it work better for them? Join us on 20th May to find out.
Regularly updating data on charities and the coronavirus crisis. Find out more about needs and services in your region. We have built an interactive databank which helps you target your work.
This event will be an opportunity to hear from some of those in the sector (and outside) who are doing some of this big thinking.
Charities and funders will be looking for signs in the upcoming Budget that the economy will recover and that the most vulnerable will be supported. Will we get the Chancellor that is happy to spend? Or the more frugal one? Here's what the sector should watch out for in the Budget.
Letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the priorities of the Charity Commission
The appointment of a new chair of the Charity Commission presents an opportunity to rethink the Commission’s priorities. This is our letter to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, outlining how we believe the Charity Commission can play a transformative role in the sector.
The narrative around this crisis has the potential to be a powerful national story, both for good or for ill. Looking forward to the year ahead, civil society needs to use its voice and harness civic pride to make the story of 2021 a story of hope, compassion and change.
The pandemic has led to charities being shut out of prisons and prisoners being locked up for 23 hours a day. What’s more, funders feel that change is too hard to achieve in the criminal justice system. Here’s how a systems map could help funders and charities have an impact in prisons.
Charities, social enterprises, community organisations and all their funders are crucial to getting us through this crisis. That’s why civil society needs to be given a seat at the table, both in Whitehall and in town halls, and we need to see everyone working together at a local level.
This report uses interviews, focus groups and an online survey of the sector to paint a detailed picture of how Covid-19 is changing charities and what this means for the future. We set out practical recommendations for charities, funders and policymakers.
This week, the Conservative Party is hosting an online annual conference. Baroness Barran, Minister for Civil Society, has authored this blog for NPC on the government's programme for charities.
Covid-19 has held up a great big mirror to the massive social inequalities that beset our nation. At this year's NPC Ignites, we will discuss how charities can tackle them.
This week, the Labour Party is hosting an online annual conference. Rachael Maskell MP, Shadow Minister for the Voluntary and Community Sector, has authored this blog for NPC on Labour’s programme for charities.