Our lips are sealed

There was much kerfuffle recently over disability charity Scope
shutting some of its services so that it could focus on
campaigning. Although some reports claimed Scope was closing 50 of
its residential homes – it is shutting just two and will continue
to provide services as well as campaign – the news reignited the
debate about the role of charities.

Should charities be ardent campaigners on behalf of their client
groups? Or is it more appropriate for them to concentrate on
providing services? And as the government encourages voluntary
sector participation in the delivery of social care services, how
far should charities accept the government’s invitation to get

The dictionary definition of the word charity is “the giving of
help… to those in need” while the word campaign means “a series
of co-ordinated activities designed to achieve a goal”. One school
of thought is that never the twain should meet because the critical
nature of campaigning could upset funders and jeopardise the money
coming in.

However, an increasing number of charities strongly believe that
providing services directly to clients informs and guides campaign
work, and vice versa. Paul Ward, deputy chief executive of the HIV
charity Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), describes his organisation’s
two-pronged approach as a “virtuous circle”. Of its £12m
income a year it spends 99 per cent on services and 1 per cent on
campaigning. Ward says: “It is important that campaigning work is
grounded in the needs of the people we are here to serve. Over 20
years we have found the best way of doing that is by being a
campaigner and provider of services.” The brand name of THT acts as
a quality assurance measure for those using its services and adds
credibility to the work it does with government and other agencies,
he says.

Andy Rickell, Scope’s executive director of diversity and
corporate planning, agrees that campaigning and providing services
is a virtuous circle. He argues that if a charity is going to
campaign for a particular issue then it has to be willing to
provide that same service itself. This is why Scope is focusing on
providing community-based services to its clients alongside
campaigning for disabled people: it is putting its money where its
mouth is, he says. Of its £99m annual income in 2003-4, Scope
spent £65.9m on services and £400,000 on campaigning.

But can a charity effectively provide services and campaign at
the same time? Is there a concern that if a charity is too
outspoken against the policies of its funder its grants will
suddenly cease? Ward admits this can be a problem but says THT
avoids it by receiving funding from 200 statutory bodies rather
than just relying on one. “The level of influence they have over us
is minimal in terms of our campaigning but not in terms of our

Chris Hanvey, director of operations at Barnardo’s, believes
that fear of losing funding does not have to constrain campaigning
activity. “It can be done in a way that allows you to campaign
against the organisations that fund you,” he says. About 5 per cent
of Barnardo’s donated income of £28.4m is devoted to its
campaigning and influencing work while 95 per cent goes on

One charity that has recently upped its campaigning work by
appointing a dedicated team with its own budget is Crisis. Mark
Flannagan, director of communications and campaigns for the
homelessness charity, says the move was necessary to build on the
issues that its operational work has highlighted. In the financial
year ending in April 2004 Crisis spent just over £116,000 on
campaigning and more than £4m on service provision. “The whole
raison d’tre of Crisis is to lobby for change in order to get the
door open, come inside and get the solutions needed in place.”

The adult care green paper Independence, Well-being and Choice
makes no secret of the government’s desire for the voluntary sector
to play an active role in providing services that strengthen
communities. But just how far should the government expect
charities to go in helping it meet its policy commitments?

As part of its public sector reform the Labour party is keen for
the voluntary sector to bid jointly with private companies to run
detention centres, prisons and young offender institutions in an
effort to introduce a more humane approach. However, two months ago
children’s charities including the Children’s Society and NCH
firmly rejected these plans on the grounds that working in the
current prison system goes against their commitment to children’s
welfare (news, page 6, 21 April). Any efforts to encourage further
joint working between the voluntary and private sectors could prove
problematic for charities, as doing so could require them to act in
a way that contradicts their stated aims and beliefs.

Hanvey says jointly provided secure residential care for
children creates a “moral dilemma” for voluntary organisations.
“The reasons for private organisations’ involvement are purely
financial whereas voluntary organisations have their own values.
This is an issue the voluntary sector has to face up to; the
motivation may be more financial rather than ethical.”

So is there a danger that charities could align themselves too
closely with the government’s own agenda? Rickell says this is
something that already happens in the disability world, to the
detriment of its clients: “For some voluntary sector organisations
their role as provider is so close to government as funder that
they exclude the people they are doing the work for.” In effect,
the danger in such cases is that charities act according to their
funder’s priorities and not the priorities of the users they
represent, sometimes becoming overly reliant on the government.

Luke FitzHerbert, a senior researcher for the Directory of
Social Change, an organisation which campaigns for the better
management of charities, agrees this is a danger. “It is difficult
to bite the hand that feeds you and naturally the government, when
faced with critics, may buy them out or show them how things should
be done.” This results in the charity becoming complicit in the
government’s work and weakening its position as an external,
impartial critic.

In light of this, it is essential that charities give clear
messages to the public about the difference their work can make.
Hanvey says that when people donate to charity “they do not want to
think their money is propping up local authority services”. He
would advise any voluntary organisation to avoid getting into a
position where it is “compromised” in terms of its government
contracted work, limiting the extent to which it can speak out for
its clients.

While some charities maintain their distance from the government
at all costs, others have potentially useful access to those in
positions of power. FitzHerbert says it is about striking a balance
between the two and that at times it can be necessary to be
reasonably close to government.

One scenario that highlights this involves the Royal National
Institute for Deaf People, which was critical of the government for
not providing digital hearing aids to people with hearing loss.

But in 2003 the charity began working with the Department of
Health to ensure that the hearing aids were available on the NHS
across the country – a goal that through collaboration was
eventually achieved. The saying, inspired by 19th century social
reformer and historian Sidney Webb, that it can be necessary to
pull individuals from the swamp as well as to drain it – or at
least be in a position to do both things – evidently applies to the
voluntary sector in the 21st century.

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