Charities need to stick up for themselves

The voluntary sector is getting bullied. It needs to start fighting back.

Ed Miliband isn’t the only one on the receiving end of an attempted character assassination. The voluntary sector has also been subject to a concerted campaign of criticism over the last few months from a number of different quarters.

In August, the Daily Telegraph published a series of articles on excessive charity chief executive pay. Whatever their substance, such  reports  are undoubtedly damaging for trust in charities, most of which pay their chief executives a perfectly reasonable salary for doing a difficult job.

Last month, Chris Grayling opened up another front. Writing in the Daily Mail he took explicit aim at the campaigning activity of charities and their use of the law to further campaigning objectives. He is not the only politician to take up this case, and the RSPCA, for example, has been criticised for what is  perceived to be an aggressive use of the law in their attempt to end cruelty to animals.

Charities have also been swept up in the ‘Transparency in Lobbying Bill’, fuelling fears that, in effect, campaigning will be outlawed in the period running up to an election. It may sound paranoid to bundle these issues together, but there are clear signs that a body of opinion not convinced that advocacy, policy or campaigning are legitimate charitable activities is gaining some currency.

Unlike Ed Miliband, the voluntary sector has not been vocal or effective in coming to its own defence. NCVO and others have scored a few tactical victories, over the provisions of the Transparency in Lobbying Bill, for example, but the sector more broadly has been unable or unwilling to clearly articulate its story about the right to campaign in a democratic society.

This is a similar problem to the one faced by charities in relation to fundraising, although here we’re looking at a problem of the sector’s own making. The direct marketing techniques that charities routinely employ – street fundraising, door-to-door collections, telephone campaigns etc – still work well, but they are not liked by many members of the public, and over time will undermine the brand of UK charities.

The public by and large still trust charities (a great deal more than they do politicians!), and there is a store of good will available, but by acting in their short-term individual interests charities are acting against their longer-term collective interest.

I heard a phrase coined by branding guru Wally Olins the other day: "individually strong, collectively weak". It seems to perfectly sum up the problem the voluntary sector faces: although we have many strong, effective and admirable charities in the UK, the sector is collectively weak. And if the political environment is becoming less hospitable for charities, then that is a very real concern.

As with all collective action problems it is not one person’s responsibility to fix it. I think this creates an interesting opportunity for philanthropists: it won’t appeal to everyone, but for those who believe in campaigning as a tool for social change there is a position here to take a lead in creating a collective voice for the sector, and even to do some of the speaking. Dan Pallotta has mooted the idea of an International Charity Defence League – why don’t we start right here in the UK?

Rob Abercrombie is director of research and consulting at NPC

This piece first appeared on Spear's Magazine

Children in a Red Cross camp. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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