by | Feb 20, 2023

Don’t ‘stick to the knitting’ say leaders from other sectors

Ten years ago, the Institute of Economic Affairs claimed that public money was being used to fund campaigns and activities that did not reflect public opinion and were not in the public interest. Just before Christmas, a group called Conservative Way Forward demanded a stop to “politically motivated” campaigns. Supported by 47 Conservative MPs, it targeted charities working on equality and diversity and those in the refugee and migrant sector, as well as other bodies it takes issue with, such as the BBC. I mention this just to evidence the fact that the political view that charities should “stick to the knitting” is alive and well.  

And yet, in conversations we held with senior figures from other sectors we were told that rather than keep their heads down, they want charity leaders to speak up even more loudly. They believe that charities bring a unique and invaluable perspective, offering an analysis and reaching audiences that other sectors can’t. A report sharing our findings is published today. 

This expertise, and the passion for change, is seen to be particularly important now as society struggles to cope with cost of living and other pressures. They want charity CEOs to be even more prominent in our national conversation, echoing strong public support. A recent poll by The Good Agency found that almost 1 in 2 (45%) of people think charities should take a political position on the cost-of-living crisis. 

We at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) exist to unleash social power – the capacity civil society holds to drive transformational change when working at its best. We believe people should be able to shape their world, and we believe charities exist to provide relief and drive reform.  

With this in mind, I wrote a blog last spring expressing concern about the relative absence of charity CEO voices from our national conversation. I reported data SMK had collated that showed that just 2% of the guests appearing on popular social affairs programmes in a six-month period were from charities. Since it was published, we have worked with a committed group of charity CEOs to understand why. We have invited leaders from a wide range of other sectors – media, faith sector, business, trades unions, public sector, advertising – to meet with us and listen to what they have to say.  

What we heard took us pleasantly by surprise. They felt that charities have become more visible through the Covid pandemic and that, given current social challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis, it is more important than ever that charity voices are heard. 

Charities are seen to bring a unique and valuable perspective. They “hold the keys” to tackling complex social challenges. They are able to connect the dots on disparate issues, which policymakers find hard to do. And they have a message that can reach audiences that others can’t. Further, they felt that charities bring a sense of moral conviction and passion for change that is urgently needed in our public debate today. Indeed, for some, it is both a role and duty for charities to speak out; “the purpose of charities is to speak out. If you lose sight of that, you’re headed for trouble”.  

There was good advice given to help charity CEOs be heard; they were advised to speak to the agenda of the day, rather than stick to their narrow issues; to bring clear evidence; and to speak together around shared concerns, which can be very powerful. Our guests also felt charities should speak beyond government, finding common cause with other sectors, notably the private sector and their growing interest in ‘ESG’ and ‘purpose’ marketing.  

It feels to us that a lot of this has been happening. The common position taken by the RSPB, National Trust, and Wildlife Trusts in response to measures in the mini budget last autumn was extraordinarily powerful. And it was a pleasing shift in tone to hear the new Chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser, making positive noises. 

Yet, our conversations acknowledged real blocks to charity leaders being able to speak up. To be overcome, some require changes to policy, legislation and even attitudes. But there are ways we can shape our own fate too.  

Our sector guests offered advice in four areas: 

Reach out – Continue to build stronger relationships and mutual understanding with other sectors. Find ‘unusual allies’ in places you don’t usually look. The world does not begin and end in Westminster and no one sector has a monopoly on solutions. 

Stand together – It’s powerful when charities come together around shared values or at key moments. Increasingly, people recognise that most issues are intersectional and charities need to collaborate on research, policy, and PR to tell that story. Not to mention the support and solidarity that organisations need when they come under attack for speaking up. How can we as a sector ensure we have the capacity, culture and methods to do this? 

Strengthen our organisations – An ‘excess of caution’ on charity boards can lead to an overly narrow interpretation of charitable mission, yet charities cannot fully respond to ‘the needs of the people and causes they serve’ without considering the complex range of factors that affect people’s lives. How can we build understanding and confidence within our organisations that speaking up and out, including about the cause of presenting problems, is not just legitimate, but essential? 

Support our people – For CEOs to ‘cut through’ they need to be compelling people. Are we promoting and properly supporting people of genuine vision and character, who can command public attention? Or has management supplanted leadership? And, once we have those leaders, are they getting the support they need to step into public debates? 

Our discussions show that people outside the sector do want charities to feel free to speak beyond their ‘core’ issues and offer that broader analysis – we just have to create the conditions and provide the support that allows them to do that.  

We will be continuing this work at SMK in partnership with a growing group of charity leaders. If these findings, or the work of the Charity Reform Group (CRG), is of interest, please do not hesitate to get in touch at [email protected]. 

Download a copy of the report Speak Up, we need you! in full here.  

Sue Tibballs

Sue is the Chief Executive of SMK



Sign up and get our newsletter

To be part of a more powerful civil society, sign up for news, upcoming events, training and consultancy.   

We will always respect your privacy. Read our Privacy Policy or click here to unsubscribe