Charities Should Pick Up The House Of Lords’ Baton

The House of Lords Select report entitled “Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society”, which was published earlier this week, provides a huge opportunity for the charity and voluntary and community sector (VCS).

Thankfully this appears to have been recognised by the national sector bodies, including NCVO, NAVCA and ACEVO; and, from what I have observed, by charities – large and small, local and national. The report contains some sound analysis of charities’ role and contribution to societal well-being. It also makes some sensible and timely recommendations for the Government, local government, the wider public sector, and for charities themselves.

I’m not going to comment on the report’s analysis and recommendations in this article. Many voices have already held forth on these from the national sector bodies, commentators, politicians and charity activists – and there will be many further opportunities to comment upon and add to these commentaries on other occasions. Rather, in this article, I wish to address what can and should happen next.

I have read and heard far too many sector leaders say that they are concerned that the report may not gain traction and in particular, that they do not expect the Government to enact the recommendations and drive progress based on the report.

I agree. I fear that left to themselves, ministers may sit back, make some warm noises and then, having plenty else to distract them, simply move on. Such behaviour must not be allowed. And it is charities that must ensure that such behaviour is avoided.

I know that NCVO, NAVCA, ACEVO and other national sector bodies are planning to take up the opportunity created by this Parliamentary report. This is to be welcomed. At minimum, there is clearly much merit in the national bodies co-ordinating their actions (preferably, through a joint campaign).

A starting point will be the for the national sector bodies to involve their members in producing, as quickly as possible, a comprehensive response to the House of Lords’ report. This response should (I believe) highlight and amplify, with examples of good practice, the positive analysis and recommendations from the Committee. It should also address, with evidence, those elements of the report, which could have been more strongly articulated, or with which charities take a different view. The response should be challenging and not sycophantic; and it should challenge the report’s authors, government, local government, the wider public sector, foundations and other funding bodies, as well as charities themselves.

In doing this the national sector bodies should promote and celebrate the sector’s diversity, its history, its ability to mobilize for social action and its support with the public; and its independence and that it is not and never should be subservient agent of government.

The comprehensive report from the House of Lords’ has a real potential to be the catalyst for the charity sector to define, boldly and confidently, the role of charity in the twenty first century, especially in the context of contemporary political, economic, and social and environmental conditions. Such a declaration is long overdue and will be invaluable in so many ways and for so many purposes.

The national sector bodies should then use this response to promote an agenda with ministers, other political parties and the public.

The national sector bodies should also actively seek to influence politicians and others to pursue the recommendations from the House of Lords’ report and the sector’s own proposals. This should be an ambitious and active campaign, well resourced over a sustained period of time.

One important strand of such a campaign must be to actively encourage individual charities and VCS organisations to support their national bodies, through seeking to influence Members of Parliament and ministers, especially those associated with a charity’s interests; and also, collectively and individually, to use the report and the sector’s own response as the basis for conversations with councillors, council leaders and elected mayors, and senior executives across the local public sector.

At the same time and in parallel, the sector should be engaging foundations and other major funders in a related debate.

Above all the national sector bodies should use the House of Lords’ report and their own response to challenge charities and VCS organisations to demonstrate the behaviours that should be expected of them. If the charity and VCS sector is going to fulfil its historic role and meets its mission, then it has to evolve, and it must reject poor behaviours and shabby performance, even from within its own sector. Such an approach, based on honesty and integrity, can only help to strengthen the campaign with Government and others too.

Two final thoughts on the response that I want the sector to make sure it is based on ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ and the ‘sector’ rather than ‘my organisation’. Secondly but most importantly the response and consequent campaign rep focus on beneficiaries and the wider public interest, and not on charities or those who lead them per se.

This means that when responding, the charity and VCS sector should not hold back on challenging wider public policy agendas and programmes that are harming their beneficiaries and the wider community. If strong charities contribute to a strong society (and I very much believe this to be the case), they have to argue that a strong society requires a strong government and public sector, social justice, equality and fairness. Charities should drive social, economic and environmental change and never just be a provider of sticking plaster (important as this can be), and I am delighted to note that this was recognised by the House of Lords’ Select Committee.

So let’s see the charity sector itself picking up this baton with no fumbling.

The sector, and more importantly, society cannot wait for Government.