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Photo: Clem Onojeghuo, Unsplash

How do campaigners feel about charity campaigning today?

23 January 2018

There’s good news and bad news in the second annual Sheila McKechnie Foundation Campaigner Survey, which explores the factors affecting campaigning in the UK today.  

I’ll start with the bad news. Charity campaigners see themselves in the midst of a crisis – a massive 90% of campaigners say that its legitimacy is under threat. By a significant margin, government measures, such as the Lobbying Act, are the most commonly perceived threats. Second place goes to an internal threat: greater caution amongst trustees and senior managers to speak out. Negative media coverage and funding conditions that discourage campaigning were ranked third and fourth.

The good news is that only a third of campaigners said that caution was a problem in their own organisation. Just 13% said they had seen a reduction in campaigning.

What are these figures pointing to? 

Are we blowing stories about plummeting trust and gagging clauses out of all proportion? Or are campaigners already adapting to a reality in which “sticking to the knitting” is the ideal and campaigning must be meek and non-adversarial?

Only a minority say they’re campaigning less, but are others campaigning as hard or as sharply as they once did? Is there a danger that trustees and senior managers are content with (or even asking for) activity “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? In others words, looking like they’re campaigning without upsetting anyone? It’s a real danger in an uncertain and apparently hostile political environment, with both funders and supporters to keep on side.

That is not to say the external threats are not real. The Lobbying Act is terrible law, regardless of whether you agree with its aims. Many funders, including the government, do not accept that policy change can be the best way to prevent harm before it happens. They ask what business it is of charities to campaign for social change when they should be out working with people in need. I ask what business do charities have working with people in need, identifying systemic failures, and then NOT campaigning?

We need more detailed evidence about how far the threats are external, and how far they are being magnified by our own reactions.

5 actions charity campaigners need to take

The solutions to this crisis, in the view of campaigners, are emerging with some coherence, and all are within our capabilities. Campaigners say the sector must:

  • Be braver, speak out and campaign against injustice, be led by mission and beneficiaries, be comfortable with making people uncomfortable
  • Be better, build skills and knowledge, increase transparency, and maintain standards such as impartiality or data protection
  • Tell a clearer, more compelling story about why we campaign
  • Collaborate more, build coalitions and share information
  • Call for the lifting of unreasonable restrictions on campaign activity, including the Lobbying Act.

We must, of course, continue to demand a better legal and regulatory framework. But we must also keep making the case for campaigning – both as a legal right and a moral duty – and refuse to be intimidated into inaction.

The annual Sheila McKechnie Foundation Campaigner Survey has just been published.

Hear how organisations are rebooting their campaigns and energising new audiences at the Bond Conference, 26-27 February.

About the author

Sue Tibballs
Sheila McKechnie Foundation

Sue has worked in the social change sector for twenty five years, chiefly in the areas of gender equality and environmental sustainability, in the UK and abroad.