A long post on a little campaign with a big roar

I really enjoyed Andrew Purkis’ blog last week showcasing the power of charity campaigning with a great example from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (now Action on Hearing Loss – love their rebrand by the way). I liked the framing of the campaign within an idea of partnership between charity and government, with a view to creating meaningful change. And as a former Policy Officer with a large-ish charity, and a general fan of the democratic and expert role that the voluntary sector can and should play, I definitely support the message that we need to be standing up for this campaigning role.

Purkis’ point is, rightly, to defend the big charity, so often a focal point for criticism, and its role in campaigning. The example is of a large charity, with, as Purkis puts it, its concentrated passion, deep knowledge of user experience, 300,000 supporters and diversified funding base, professional staff and expert allies, long term staying power and its status as ‘a great national charity’. In the spirit of sharing good stories I’d like to add in an example from the other end of the spectrum to show how diverse the campaigning field can be, and how powerful. As a sector, indeed as a bunch of people, I think we can sometimes feel that successful campaigning can’t be done unless you’re one of the big guys. Likewise I think small charities and groups can sometimes get pigeon-holed as mutual aid, shared interest or hobby groups (all of which exist and are great, obviously), ignoring the fact that they can also be an incredible force for driving change. IC Change is a great example of doing just that.

I can’t remember exactly how I got involved in IC Change (although I think wine was involved). A friend, Robyn Boosey, had set up the campaign with two other amazing women, Rebecca Bunce and Rachel Nye, in 2014. The idea was to get Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women and domestic violence. The UK signed the Convention in 2012, but has been dragging its feet on ratification, meaning the protections it promises aren’t yet written into law. These three women didn’t think this was good enough, and decided to do something about it. They started to build partnerships with women’s organisations across the UK, write letters to ministers, and even sent some birthday treats – cards and retro mix tapes – to the Home Office. And they roped all of their friends in to help – I started by glancing at a couple of policy submissions for them and ended running social media. They had to because they were all volunteers – the three of them all have day jobs and have funded these activities almost exclusively from their own pockets. I’ll rudely speak for everyone, I think we were happy to volunteer because, as much as it is a cause we all care about, they are fantastic, passionate leaders who leave you believing you really can make a difference.

Then an SNP MP called Eilidh Whiteford got the chance to create a Private Members Bill, and decided to bring one on the Istanbul Convention. This was an incredible opportunity to get Government to step up and into action. We had lots of things on our side; we had cross-party support, we had a great team of volunteers doing graphics, photography, campaign materials, policy, social media, press work and more, we knew the Government was interested in tackling violence against women and we had those partnerships the three Rs had spent two years building up. What we needed was 100 MPs to come to the Bill debate, in order to stop it getting talked out (as so often happens with PMBs). The partnership kept growing and so did our supporter numbers. The Women’s Aid organisations across the UK were on board early on, as were Sisters of Frida, Southall Black Sisters and others. During the build-up to the PMB there was support from the Women’s Institute, Girlguiding UK, Fawcett Society, EHRC and the Women’s Equality Party, among many others (plus Emma Watson. Which was amazing.) WEP was able to mobilise a national network of party members, alongside our existing supporters, to hassle their MPs to turn up to the 2nd reading and vote in favour of the Bill which made a huge difference. On the day 137 MPs showed up, which meant a vote could be called, which meant the Bill passed through to Committee Stage, where it is now. This is a huge win. Once it’s finished we hope the Act will provide a timetable for ratification, and an annual reporting requirement on ending violence against women.

So, what made this one work, and what can we learn from it? I’ve touched on some of these already, but they’re worth looking at a bit more. So here goes.

  • We took advantage of a policy window… Just to put my MA learnin’ to use, this was a good example of an identifiable problem, a policy solution and a favourable political context coming together to open a policy window. Violence against women costs the state £15.8 billion a year in services and lost productivity – there’s your problem. The Istanbul Convention offers a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women; the Government signed this four and a half years ago so it’s one they are on board with (they’d just gotten stuck…). And the positive political environment came courtesy of cross-party support, profile in the media, probably a sympathetic Prime Minister and, crucially, from us in civil society.
  • …but we were a key part of creating that window. Us, our volunteers and supporters, our partners, faith groups – civil society made a huge noise about why Government needed to get moving on this. We helped create a political context where Government would have faced significant criticism from inside and outside their own party had they not made some kind of commitment, by raising the profile of the Convention and the Bill in the media and among MPs. This didn’t happen overnight; it took two years and many Parliamentary Questions before we started to see a shift, but see a shift we did.
  • You don’t need loads of money to make change… One of my worries with this campaign was that we didn’t have handy tech tools like Engaging Networks which can make contacting supporters so much easier. Actually it didn’t matter at all. We emailed our supporters, our partners emailed theirs, we tweeted and facebooked endlessly and it all got results. We don’t know how many people contacted their MPs. We do know that they changed MPs minds, raised their awareness and made them as passionate as they were about this cause.
  • …but a little bit helps. We had a couple of pub quizzes to raise a little bit of money, and a lot came out of the pockets of the three. We had to pay, collectively or individually, for tea and coffee in the House of Lords, t-shirts for supporters, printing of briefings, posters and signs, banners (which I accidentally broke), train fares and so on. The point is there are some costs, which do add up, and which you don’t always think about. I would love to see more trusts offering small grants programme for community activism (community in the place and people sense) to make it easier for more people to do this kind of thing – whether or not they get what they’re campaigning for – because it’s such a great way to play an active part in democracy (Lush actually already has a pot for this. If you know of any others let me know!).
  • Social media is amazing. Although it takes a huge amount of coordination – by the last two weeks I was working full-time on it (sorry, PhD supervisors…). We did face some criticism from an MP that we were just encouraging ‘clicktivism’ and failing to engage in real activism. I think we need to be careful not to overstate the role of social media, and with this campaign there was a lot of other work going on behind the scenes. But we also have to be really careful not to dismiss it. Our online campaigners were amazing and we saw MPs change their minds in real-time after a good amount of twitter engagement. MPs tweeting their support meant other MPs saw it and supported in turn. It brought more campaigners on board who started to feel encouraged that they could get their MP to commit too. And I’ll never forget the moment Emma Watson retweeted a bunch of the campaign tweets and my tweetdeck went into total meltdown. Crumbs. A fairly cheap Facebook ad also helped bring us a good chunk of new ‘likes’, as did an amazing post by someone who actually wasn’t directly involved in the campaign but was really on board with the message – Susie’s post got shared hundreds of times with completely new audiences. Finally, it’s one form of campaigning among many, but one that’s open to some people who can’t engage in IRL forms of activism; some of our brilliant volunteers have disabilities, some people who want to campaign have kids or complicated lives, which means they can find it difficult to go door-knocking or attend meetings or have long days set in the diary. If they have access to the internet, then it’s another way to engage.
  • Volunteers are amazing. Most of this campaign was done entirely on volunteer power, and credit to Robyn, Rachel and Rebecca who managed us all brilliantly. It was an incredibly intense campaign but there were always opportunities to take a break, to check in, to self-care. We always made sure we thanked people for the time and effort they were giving, whether in real life or on social media, which kept them posting, following, sharing and writing to their MPs.

This campaign does have a little way to go – the Bill still needs to get through the rest of the parliamentary process, and then we need a bit more legislation before the Istanbul Convention is finally ratified. And, of course, then we need to make sure Government delivers on prevention, protection and prosecution requirements. But we’ve got a huge step closer. Small, informal, unregistered volunteer groups can be powerful agents for change, just like the big folk. I’m proud to have been a part of this one.

If you want to see some of the action, check out the Storify from the Istanbul Convention Bill’s 2nd reading here.


Identity crisis: defining voluntary action

I’ve noticed that when I tell people I’m researching the voluntary sector, people tend to tell me what’s wrong with the voluntary sector. Whether it’s that charities are corrupt and wasting their money on things like talking to government or paying inflated chief executive salaries, or that they’re enabling the advance of the neoliberal agenda by delivering services for the state, I spend a surprising amount of time defending them.

Many of the criticisms are valid, and hopefully I’ll get round to unpicking some of them in future musings, but lots also come from different understandings of what charities are, what they do (or what they should do) and what part voluntary action plays in society.

These are questions that has preoccupied Government, charities, academia, the press and the public for at least 400 years (the Charitable Uses Act of 1597 was the first attempt to regulate charities, history fans*). If you even spend a little bit of time reading research articles or policy documents about the voluntary sector you’ll notice that a lot of them start with a ‘what is the voluntary sector?’ section. Message me if you want references – I’m doing *all* the reading right now for my MA.

But how do voluntary organisations think about themselves and the work they do? Well, the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities gives us a convenient opportunity to find out. 172 organisations and individuals submitted evidence to the Committee’s inquiry into the sustainability of the charity sector and challenges of charity governance, which opened with the question: ‘What is the role and purpose of charities in civic society in England and Wales?’. In total, 86 submissions penned an answer, and I read ’em all. Here’s what they said:

The ‘sector’ is a diverse place

Lots of organisations cautioned the Committee against talking about charities and the voluntary sector as one homogenous group. Charities and voluntary groups are described as diverse in terms of size, mission type and legal form. Some object to the use of the label ‘charity’ because it refers to a specific legal form and, in their view, excludes the full range of community groups and small or micro organisations that are part of voluntary action. A minority feel that large charities, or even legally defined charities, dominate conversations and resources at the expense of small, grass roots organisations.

Some others talk about diversity in terms of challenges faced, and feel that too narrow a definition of ‘charities’ – one that sees the very large and very small as one thing – can lead to serious policy problems (onerous reporting requirements or one-size-fits-all funding arrangements) and public relations problems (where all charities or groups are blamed for the sins of one).

Mission defines

According to a significant number of respondents, the one defining feature that charities, voluntary organisations and grass roots groups all share is ‘a passion for delivering their mission’. Their purpose is to make a difference to the lives of their beneficiaries, to solve a social problem through innovation, or to fill a gap where support is otherwise not available. They can provide a service or help to represent people and campaign on their behalf. This is done by bringing people with a shared interest together, by working in partnership and often by being closer to the communities they seek to represent than statutory or private organisations. ‘Local’ and ‘community’ comes up time and time again in relation to delivering organisations’ missions. So do concepts of independence, flexibility and empowerment. (This is close to what Salamon and Anheier call a ‘functional’ definition, which sees organisations defined according to operating in the public interest or with a common purpose – they discuss the pros and cons of this on p.37, if you’re interested.)

Organisations are worried about what ‘increased service delivery’ means

There are 120 references to service delivery across the submissions, which makes it one of the most popular topics. Lots are positive: they talk about the value the voluntary sector can add to services, about services delivered because of a gap in state provision and about the ability of the sector to deliver high-quality, innovative services without a profit motive that change the lives of their beneficiaries. Some talk about the importance of partnership working between different sectors in this arena too. Interestingly, fewer talk about charities’ campaigning role, although it is still an important feature for many.

However, lots of others talk about the problems of increased service delivery. Some identify an increased pressure to fill larger gaps in state provision or to deliver services to a higher volume of people. One charitably calls this the increasing ‘reliance of the state on voluntary action’. A few more call it the ‘rolling back of the state’ or the result of statutory sector funding cuts. This has brought, in the views of some, problems in terms of the capacity and capability either to deliver services, or to secure realistic contracts to do so in the first place. Many talk about funding problems: more people are looking to charities for help as a result of this statutory roll-back, but in their experience funding streams have reduced. A move from grant funding to contracts, and an increase in charities taking up those contracts, has brought a perceived increase in risk, reduction in charity partnership working and a restriction in independence and ability to speak out. More than one submission refers to increasingly blurred boundaries between sectors, and there is a clear belief that this has worsened since the Coalition Government came to power.

It should be noted that not every submission talks about contract delivery as inherently problematic, and many describe the benefits of voluntary organisations delivering services on behalf of the state. There is by no means a consistent view on this issue, but almost everyone seems to have one.

But distinction is still important

The Committee asked about what makes the sector distinct, and voluntary organisations are very clear in their responses that they are not businesses or the state. They are not for profit, not commercial, not as limited or inflexible as the state and better placed to drive social change than commercial enterprises. Social value rather than financial, for the benefit of the community, is key. It is crucially important to them that they remain independent. Those that talk about blurred boundaries argue that distinction should be preserved, although some talk about the perceived focus on finance rather than mission moving charities closer to looking like a business. This is a view one hears expressed often, and it’s important to explore exactly why we think this distinction is important. I think it’s equally important to make a distinction between professionalisation and marketisation, but that’s a whole other bit of research on my to-do list.

There is a lot of rich material in these submissions, with plenty of contradiction, enthusiasm and unease mixed in. I’ve tried to give a flavour here but I’m (always) happy to talk more. One of the take-aways for me is that plenty of charities and voluntary organisations are just as worried about taking on greater roles in service delivery and about issues of transparency as the people I speak to. There is a significant level of dispute and contention in the collected responses, particularly around service delivery but also in terms of diversity and ‘sector’ definitions, which suggests that I’m going to keep having these conversations for some time to come.

*I know virtually nothing about anything pre-1869, so I suggest you read Justin Davis Smith’s chapter on philanthropy and self-help in Britain 1500-1945 if you’re really a history fan. Or if you’re just a simple voluntary sector fan, the whole book.

Never gonna give you up: the perpetual courtship of central government and the voluntary sector

Last week the Government announced that it will create a new policy unit to ‘improve relations with charities, faith organisations and businesses’, based at Number 10. Details have yet to emerge on exactly what this means, but the sector seem fairly optimistic about its prospects, and its potential for ‘resetting the relationship’ between Government and the sector.

For nerds like me it’s exciting, because it is yet another in a long line of offices and units established to improve the sector-state relationship. It gives us an excuse to look back to previous incarnations and think about what, if anything, they achieved, and to imagine where this one might take this sometimes tortuous relationship.

As with so much else, my interest begins in the 1970s with the establishment under the Conservative Government of the Voluntary Services Unit (VSU) in 1972. The Wolfenden Committee report on the future of voluntary organisations (1978) describes its four main functions: acting as a link between voluntary organisations and government departments, providing a focal point for Whitehall when troubled with voluntary sector issues, encouraging cooperation between voluntary organisations and acting as a ‘financier of last resort’ or a funder of ‘innovatory’ projects in areas of high social need.

This is a wide brief, although in practice there is limited information available about the day-to-day operations and ways of working of the Unit. This is in part because the various government departments involved appear to be juggling the historical data between them; my latest FOI came back with the news that, while some of the files had been sent to the Department for Communities and Local Government, others were still in the Home Office, and neither party knew who had what. I guess I will just have to wait.

My data woes aside, there are some interesting comments in contemporary literature and historical analysis of the Unit. The Wolfenden Committee very much welcomed the establishment of the VSU, but recognised some of its challenges:

We know that its officers are, so to speak, walking several tight-ropes at once. They must not dictate to the voluntary sector: yet each of their decisions will be taken as an indication of official policy. They must not lay down hard-and-fast criteria for their support of the voluntary sector: yet they cannot support an indiscriminate free-for-all.

The final tension, around which bits of the voluntary sector should get support, is interesting in terms of debates around the control and influence of Government over the sector. Stephen Hatch, writing in 1980, attributes the growth in the number of voluntary organisations in part to the government policy of promoting voluntary action through this unit. Colin Rochester’s historical analysis suggests that there was a dual purpose at play; promoting voluntary action at a local level, but also promoting mergers between organisations to ‘rationalise’ activity. It would be interesting to see more on the extent to which the Unit’s grants programme was trying to shape the voluntary sector, and whether it could be considered successful.

The grants themselves totalled £4.6 million in 1976/77 according to Ralph Kramer – a fairly small percentage of the £35.4 million spend across government departments on voluntary sector grants that year. Indeed, he says that the VSU had more of ‘a liaison rather than a coordinative function, providing some interdepartmental linkages’. This suggests more of a limited role for the Unit overall. Jeremy Kendall and Martin Knapp reflect on this ten years later as well. While they recognise the symbolic importance of the Unit, and even applaud it as ‘an enclave of voluntary sector understanding within central government’, they suggest that its resource base is ‘tokenistic’. They also see its reach within government as limited; ‘while it claims to coordinate government policy, the VSU’s influence within government has been very limited, since other departments have been reluctant to accept “interference” in what they perceive to be their own internal responsibilities.’ William Plowden, writing about the background to the introduction of the Compact under New Labour, adds that ‘a VSU would need to be extremely effectively led at bureaucratic level and strongly supported at political level for its point of view to prevail over that of other departments. The VSU did not usually meet either of these tests’. There is, perhaps, a lesson in here about not expecting too much from such units, although I wouldn’t want to pre-judge the nature and scope of the emerging one too early.

The VSU was eventually rebranded as the Active Communities Unit (and Directorate), the Civil Renewal Unit, the Office of the Third Sector (re-located to the Cabinet Office), and finally the Office for Civil Society. Pete Alcock notes how these changing titles mirror, to some extent, the developing policy discourses around the sector, and the changing and expanding role voluntary organisations were seen to play in society and service delivery. It is interesting to note the working title reported in the trade press of the new policy unit, including reference to ‘charities, faith organisations and businesses’. This suggests that charities might be seen in an even wider context again.

Alcock has also written an excellent description of institutional change during the early 2000s which I recommend reading. He notes that there is an argument about whether the establishment of these types of units serve to create a sector as a distinct entity, constituted as ‘a ‘governable terrain’ and therefore a site for policy intervention and, potentially, control’. As with the VSU, I think this is an interesting area of exploration, and something to think about as this new unit develops; to what extent is it trying to shape the sector in a way that serves its needs? Does that impact on charities’ independence? To what extent would, or could, charities and sector leaders challenge or influence the intended direction?

The Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson MP, has been notably absent from a lot of the voluntary sector world since he took up post. The fact that this new unit will be at Number 10 does suggest some kind of renewed focus, which certainly could be useful. As ever, we will have to wait to see the detail.

If you’re interested in looking in more detail at this subject, or have any interesting further research to show me, get in touch!

(And here’s the Rick Astley video because I know it’s stuck in your head now.)

Image result for rick astley gif

A triumphant tiptoe back into blogging

Well. As I log back into this blog I can’t help but notice my last post was almost two years ago. How much has changed since then.

In the intervening period I have been working as a Policy Officer on social care, benefits and housing, living in London and picking up a whole new collection of volunteer labels (including – I’m very proud of this – trustee of FPA). I have done freelance research on community development, ad-hoc policy and amateur twitter on a campaign on ending violence against women, and I have become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). And then, I have ended up with four years of funding to do a PhD on the voluntary sector, left my job and London (but not FPA, or twitter), moved to Birmingham and gained a desk in a research office with a slowly deflating blow-up seagull. I also got new glasses.


For various complicated reasons I’ve not felt able to write much on the voluntary sector, but that’s all about to change (I can feel your excitement flowing through the internet…). Given I’m researching the thing again, I thought I’d better start writing about it again. I can’t promise thrills or exposés (or even any kind of regular output). But I can promise my usual excess of enthusiasm about the oft over-looked corners and histories of the charity world. And occasional reflections on my own place within it.

So, chat is always welcome, as are suggestions and comments. I look forward to writing at you in the near future.

Stephen Seagull
Stephen Seagull

New Years Resolutions

It’s coming up to that time of year where, once all the deadlines are hit and the Christmas parties are through, we think about what’s passed and what’s to come. Next year is going to be an exciting year for me, as I will be looking for new challenges in new places. So I thought I’d use this blog over the next few days to reflect on what I’ve learnt this year, what’s changed, and what I want to do next.

I’ll be posting a short series of professional ‘new years resolutions’, covering campaigns, strategies and personal development. It would be great to get your feedback on these, and to hear about any of your own.

Have a very merry week!

[this Christmas jumper was obviously one major achievement…]

On George Osborne and Missing the Point

Last week, George Osborne said to the Institute of Directors that business must:

get out there and put the business argument. Because there are plenty of pressure groups, plenty of trade unions and plenty of charities and the like, that will put the counter view.

This, understandably, made a lot of people in the voluntary sector rather cross. Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, said that people ‘should be celebrating not denigrating the relationship between business and charity’. David McAuley, Chief Executive of the Trussel Trust, said that he was ‘proud of the fruitful partnerships that exist between [the Trussel Trust] and high profile names in the business sector’. Nick Bryer, head of UK campaigns and policy at Oxfam stated that ‘We don’t recognise the divide he draws between the concerns of businesses and charities’.

I agree with all of this; clearly good work is already being done between the private and voluntary sectors, and I question some of the arguments around distinction of different sectors. I’ve written about both issues before. But I think these complaints rather miss the point.

To me, Osborne’s comment is based on the belief in a particular political ideology, and his affront at it being challenged. This is made clear by another bit of his speech:

That issue [of a country for the free market] felt like it had been resolved when the Berlin Wall fell … Politicians like Tony Blair from the left felt like they had understood that free markets create the taxes to fund public services. That argument has gone.

Aside from being slightly detached from reality (I’m not sure that my understanding of ‘the left’ and Osborne’s is quite the same), this is important because the suggestion is that unions and charities are ‘putting the counter view’, and that this is detrimental to the country. What needs to be recognised, and what needs to be challenged, is that this is another piece of rhetoric in a long, long line that attacks charities’ right to campaign and challenge. As others have said before me, from the Lobbying Act to the veritable pun-mine of Brooks Newmark,  it has felt like the voluntary sector’s independence and voice is being attacked. This particular speech is no different.

Nicholas Deakin criticised this anti-political sentiment this week, complaining that ‘campaigning is legitimate only when it fits the official agenda: not when it challenges the assumptions behind it’. If we believe that campaigning is a key role for the voluntary sector, and that its voice is an important one, then we must continue to call out those who seek to restrict it.

A New Civil Society Minister

Here’s an interesting blog from George Gosling on the history of charity campaigning, in the light of Brooks Newmark’s resignation from his Minister for Civil Society post. During his time in post, Mr Newmark criticised charities for getting involved in politics and campaigning, suggesting they should ‘stick to their knitting’.


Cameron's Civil Society Ministers: Nick Hurd, Brooks Newmark and Rob Wilson

What is the job of the Civil Society Minister? Rob Wilson MP (above right) will be pondering this question as he succeeds the short-lived tenure of Brooks Newmark (above centre). His departure was part of an uncomfortable double-billing of headlines for David Cameron on the weekend ahead of the final Conservative Party conference before the next general election. The other was that of a second parliamentary Tory defection to UKIP, meaning a second byelection could see the libertarian/anti-immigration/anti-EU party with at least two seats in the House of Commons before the next general election. The attention will all be on the Prime Minister’s struggle to maintain an alliance with the unhappy right-wing of his party. In many ways, the lack of significance around this other loss for the Prime Minister tells us the other half of a worrying story for Downing Street.

The newspaper stories about the resignation of Brooks Newmark…

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