Charitable concerns

Campaigning for change is part of a charity’s job. But when does
a campaign become an advertisement, asks Frances Rickford.

Charities have a special status in the public imagination. They
are, we believe, more “good” in some way than commercial
organisations or public bodies. Not only do we give them our money,
but the government gives them our money too by exempting them from
paying millions of pounds a year in tax. But what are charities
there to do?

For the social care sector charities, the two most obvious
answers are to provide direct help to people in various ways and to
campaign for change. With the development of the welfare state,
charities had to find new ways of fulfilling their original
purposes and their future service-providing role is currently the
subject of fierce debate as both Conservative and Labour
politicians try to wedge them into their own particular vision of
public welfare.

But what of charities’ campaigning role? With the election
campaign under way many charities are doing their best to wring
commitments from parliamentary candidates on the issues that matter
most to them. Age Concern, for example, toured the country with a
campaign van and mobile stage. They asked people to submit
questions to party leaders and distributed blank cards addressed to
local candidates, headed “How to win my vote”.

The charity’s five election priorities are to end to pensioner
poverty, to end charges on long-term care, to end ageism in the
NHS, to outlaw age discrimination generally, and to provide
accessible public transport.

Campaigns manager Scott Davidson explains that although the
charity has no budget for large-scale poster and advertising
campaigning, it has had “some successes”. These include persuading
the government not only that ageism in the health service was a
reality, but also convincing it to act to end it by appointing the
older people’s tsar Ian Philp and publishing the national service
framework for older people. “John Hutton was adamant when this was
first raised that there was no such thing as ageism in the NHS,”
says Davidson.

Age Concern also claims a big share of the credit for turning
around political opinion on the state pension. “We’ve revived it as
an issue. Everyone was talking about phasing it out a few years

But although Age Concern, along with many other charities,
conducts vigorous and effective campaigns for changes in government
policy, it has to tread a fine line.

Under charity law an organisation with a political objective,
such as a change in legislation, cannot be a charity. But a
charity, which must have non-political objectives such as “the
relief of suffering”, can campaign for policy change if it can show
it has well founded reasons to believe a change in the law would
further its charitable objectives.

Another danger zone for charities, especially during an election
campaign, is the charge of political partiality. A charity cannot
support or oppose one political party over another, even if one
party adopts the charity’s policies. And under new
legislation,1 which caps party political spending,
charities must be even more cautious that their publicity could not
be construed as supporting the election campaign of one or other

For a big national charity with its own lawyers, it may be
fairly straightforward to keep on the right side of the law, but
for smaller local groups run by volunteers, mistakes are easy to

Davidson explains: “Some local Age Concern groups are massive,
but some are just a lunch club run by three or four volunteers. Age
Concern is very keen on running candidates’ forums – hustings – but
you do have to be very careful. You have absolutely got to invite
all the candidates, and some groups have decided not to hold them
because they didn’t want to give a platform to candidates with very
controversial views.”

The Children’s Society, in contrast, is lying relatively low
during the election campaign. A spokesperson explains: “We thought
about it but decided that it may not be the best time to put in a
lot of work because there is so much else going on during the
election campaign.”

But like Age Concern the Children’s Society has developed a
number of very vigorous campaign objectives and has also succeeded
in waking government up to social needs. Communications director
Tim Linehan explains that service provision and campaigning go hand
in hand.

“We are a social justice organisation. What we do is identify a
problem, provide services to address it which did not previously
exist, use those services to research the problem and use research
to campaign for solutions.” Examples are the Children’s Society’s
campaign on runaways. Having run a refuge for 10 years and
conducted a major research study of children who run away, the
charity was rewarded earlier this year with a government
consultation on runaways.

Similarly, on child prostitution, the Children’s Society
alongside others has achieved a big change in attitudes – although
its objective of decriminalising child prostitution has not been
achieved. “We had clear goals. We identified as an injustice that
children who were being sexually abused were being cautioned and
convicted by the police as a result.

“An important part is forging links with others – we’ve now got
support from the Association of Directors of Social Services and
the police. Guidelines from the Home Office went some way towards
our objectives, and the sexual offences review proposes going even

Campaigns with clear goals like these can easily be justified in
terms of a charity’s objectives. But what of campaigns with less
specific aims? If progress cannot be measured, how can a charity be
sure it is spending its donors’ money wisely to the benefit of the
people it was set up to help?

The NSPCC’s Full Stop campaign, for example, which was both a
fundraising and awareness raising campaign, has been criticised for
being too far-reaching to be effective. No one is going to defend
cruelty to children, which may make it easy to win supporters, but
can the charity show that its multi-media advertising campaign had
a real impact on adults’ behaviour towards children? MPs voted the
NSPCC the most effective campaigning charity but didn’t say whether
the campaign had changed their minds or behaviour in any way.

Certainly Full Stop has raised the profile of the NSPCC. Chief
executive Mary Marsh argues that the charity has not and would not
advertise simply to raise its own profile. Public awareness
campaigning, she says, does have real benefits for children, and
points to evidence that some of the campaign advertisements
increased public understanding and knowledge.

The poster and television campaign about the dangers of losing
your temper with a crying baby has been shown by a subsequent
survey to have raised awareness of the vulnerability of very young
children to shaking. Marsh also points out that the baseline
research on child abuse in which 3,000 young adults were surveyed
will be followed up 10 years on to track progress.

Whether such research will be a reliable indicator of the
effectiveness of Full Stop is open to question. Either way, the
NSPCC can point to many examples of campaigns and lobbying that
have led to concrete changes in government policy. These include
the setting up of the children and young people’s unit, the
establishment of the children’s commissioner in Wales and the
creation of a central criminal records bureau that provides free
criminal record checks on volunteers.

The NSPCC joined forces with Barnardo’s and the Child Poverty
Action Group to produce the Children’s Manifesto in advance of the
election and is using its website to lobby the political parties
during the election campaign for its desired aims.

The Charity Commission has now asked charities to identify
profile-raising activities in their accounts. A spokesperson
explains: “We recommend that they clarify all the costs associated
with profile-raising and fundraising. It’s all about

“We consulted the public and that consultation showed people
wanted greater transparency in the area of fundraising – both the
income gained and the costs of gaining it.”

Barnardo’s controversial poster campaign aimed to correct a
mistaken public belief that the charity still ran orphanages. Chief
executive Roger Singleton explains: “We have a responsibility to
tell the public what we are doing, and that campaign was trying to
do that. It is important that every charity presents in a very
clear way how they spend your money.

“But it is also in our objectives to lobby and campaign as a
follow-on from providing services. Our main campaigning issue is in
relation to child poverty, and you don’t get huge emotional support
for that because when we talk about poverty people compare it with
third world poverty and think it’s not really so bad.

“Where you have got an issue on which you want to campaign, and
that issue will be perceived as deserving, the campaign may well
assist your public profile. It is very difficult to draw the line
because some of the things you do will hit both targets. I believe
that within the NSPCC’s advertising campaign there was a serious
public awareness objective for example.”

Singleton believes an election campaign is a highly fertile
period for campaigning charities. “We are trying to ensure that all
the main parties’ manifestoes have the commitment to abolish child
poverty very high on their agenda.”

1 The Political Parties Elections and
Referendums Act 2001

2 The Charity Commission 1999, Political
Activities and Campaigning by Charities
, available on the
Charity Commission’s website at

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