Lessons from Under the microscope
Tony Nickson asks what Lewisham charities can learn from Charities Aid Foundation's latest research
It won’t have escaped your notice that charities have had some critical press recently, with heavy criticism of certain types of public fundraising practices, the demise of Kids Company, and the FT joining other newspapers in a rallying call for more charity mergers. As they say, good news is just not news. Should we be worried?
The Charities Aid Foundation, in Under the Microscope, has taken some soundings among politicians and the public and finds that MPs of all parties are positive about charities. This, they say, is because they tend to have more contact with charities and know what they do and how important they are in creating strong communities. MPs are also more likely to trust charities (76%) compared to the public (57%) – falling from 71% in 2014 (Charity Commission figures). Reassuring support from politicians - but a worrying fall in trust from the public.
The bad press has focused on fundraising techniques, governance and poor handling of resources, and a perception of duplication. It's fair to say that most of the attention has been focused on the bigger charities, where we’re talking millions of pounds. For most charities working at a local level with diminishing resources to keep things going it's hard to devote energy to getting the story out – but if it is public engagement that builds trust, that’s what we need to do more of. I would love to be accosted in Catford by a street fundraiser with the cheery Pret-style ‘Hi, how are you today?’, who was raising money for Lewisham charities. If you knew your fiver would stay in Lewisham, help local people, wouldn’t you be happier to give?
What do we say?
There’s a lot going on for sure and we need to get those stories told. We also struggle with what to do about advocacy, and when we want to debate where policy is having a negative impact on people. Perhaps we fear to do this in case we’re seen to be ‘too political’.
Interestingly the Charities Aid Foundation report finds that there is wide support among elected politicians for charities to do exactly this, especially the new intake of MPs after the general election, 79% of whom think that it is important for charities to highlight where they think policies have a negative effect on people. Not surprisingly perhaps, there is a big difference on this question between government and opposition – 33 per cent of conservative MPs agree, compared to 93 per cent of Labour MPs. Speaking out is clearly too political for some, and not political enough for others.
What can we learn, and what do we do practically?
Give the facts: Part of our job is to get the evidence out. We can show why people use food banks, demonstrate the kinds of issues disabled people are coming for help with (mainly benefit appeals), and show where benefit cuts leave some people destitute.
Be solutions-focussed: We can also propose solutions – as we are beginning to follow up Lewisham’s Food Summit on nutrition and food poverty, and as Lewisham Mental Health Connection are doing in creating a strong, supportive network.
- Tell stories: It is a big challenge for smaller charities to engage with the public. We don’t have the publicity machines that the larger ones do. But we can do this locally, through the stories people tell from using services and from volunteers talking about their experiences. Perhaps this is something we could do more of together.
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