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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It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.