Saturday, 29 April 2017

He said stick to your knitting and we said...

Polling Station by secretlondon123

Most people living in the UK would be justified in feeling a little bit exhausted by politics. In the last 2 and half years we've had two referenda and, come June, we'll be embarking on our second general election in the same time period. On the global stage we've been swept up in the bloodily fought US Presidential campaign and in countries around Europe we've seen the rise of Far Right political parties.

For fundraisers and charity workers, we've also been on a roller-coaster within our own sector. In the same period we've had changes to our codes of practice and been under attack for our fundraising methods. We've had reviews, and consultations, and new regulation introduced. It's harder to raise philanthropic income. 

Sticking to your knitting 

That's all happening at a time when statutory income has been dropping at a local and national level. Services are being cut. To give one example, since 2010 in England nearly 1 in 5 specialist refuges have shut down. Now, on a typical day, 103 children and 155 women are turned away, because there is no room for them.

Charities need fundraised income more than they ever have before, but it's harder to get. Some have become more financially dependent on dwindling local authority contracts, and subsequently, more reluctant to "bite the hand that feeds them" by highlighting wrongs or campaigning for change.

And what does that mean for their beneficiaries? 

Who will give them a voice?  

This week I read an article by Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women's Aid and it's a must read in the run up to this General Election. In it, Polly writes:

"Women’s Aid is a federation, and this intensifies the responsibility we feel to speak out – because the local services who are our members are silenced, whether explicitly in funding contracts or implicitly (I’ve lost count of the number of local CEOs who have told me “I can’t, our tender is coming up”)."

That sounded horribly familiar. 

Sticking to your knitting 

In 2014, the then Civil Society Minister, Brooks Newmark, was famously reported as saying "we really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics," and that "charities should be "sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others."

Mr Newmark didn't seem to appreciate that one of the critical ways charities help the people they serve, is by addressing the drivers of their situation. For a cancer charity not to have an opinion on healthcare or research spending is ludicrous. For a disability charity not to highlight the impact of welfare proposals on disabled people would be wrong. 

If charities stay out of politics they are forever condemned to the role of reactive sticking plaster, missing out on the opportunity to provide a voice for their beneficiaries and to shape the world for the better. 

When you're angry...  give 

Perhaps because of the turmoil in the fundraising landscape over the last couple of years, I'm acutely aware of the role fundraising has to play in  a turbulent political environment. 

It's been fascinating seeing "rage giving" sweep the United States, as angry citizens concerned about threats to reproductive rights and civil liberties donated in record numbers to the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. 

In the UK, it's happened too. Gina Miller's "Best for Britain" crowd-funding campaign raised over £340,000 in ten days to support pro-European MPs in their election fight. 

Rage giving. It's a thing.

When people feel powerless, either because of a personal crisis (for example, a death in the family) or because of a huge external challenge (a famine, a landslide, a political brick wall) donating empowers them again. It presents a positive active, a way to make a difference. It adds one voice to many, one action to many, and all those voices and actions swell together to create powerful, positive change. 

If you want charities to be empowered to speak on your behalf about the issues you care about, you need to give them the financial independence to do so. 

When you're confused...  look to charities 

Between politically motivated media channels and politically biased social media, bouncing and reacting against each other, it can be incredibly hard to work out who will actually act on the issues you care about.  

You can check out how an existing MP behaves, by looking at their voting record on critical issues. That's important when an MP is getting lauded or abused  for a particular stance, and particularly important when it concerns an issue like support for disable people or LGBT rights. Actions speak louder than words. Check out what they have actually done on They Work for You 

If you want to sense check any individual party's claims about particular issues, look beyond manifestos and media soundbites, and check out the research produced by charities. It's particularly useful if you live in a devolved administration, and need to disentangle who is responsible for what. I spent ten minutes looking at homelessness stats from Shelter Scotland and Crisis (UK). The differences were marked and helped me to clarify my thinking.

In the next two months....

In this General Election, charities may be understandably nervous about speaking out. It has been a challenging environment for charities and fundraising organisations. Press attention has been frequently negative, and as Ian MacQuillan has argued, often ideologically motivated

Charities are caught between the rock of needing to speak out for their beneficiaries, and the hard place of worrying that they will lose the funding they need to support their beneficiaries if they do. 

But I was reminded on Twitter, that even when we stick to our knitting, our knitting can make a powerful statement. 

Fundraising has a role to play, not only in raising funds, but in communicating beneficiary stories and giving them a voice. Donations, like votes, are stimulated by an emotional reaction, by belief not reason. Stories have incredible power. 

So as fundraisers, tell your story as well as you can. Particularly now, when the voices of your beneficiaries need to be heard. 

Charities might not shout so loudly this election, but we have a story to tell. Make sure you knit it well. 

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