On the face of it, the second annual Sheila McKechnie Foundation Campaigner Survey does not make for happy reading. Clearly, charity campaigning is still in the midst of something of a crisis. Yet, dig beneath the headlines and a more complex picture emerges, one that requires us to reflect on ourselves as well as the rest of the world.
With 90% of campaigners reporting that the legitimacy of campaigning is under threat, it’s never been more important to understand what is going on. As campaigners, our instinct is to look outward, to ask where the problem lies and how we can tackle it. This time, we must include ourselves in the analysis. A good, hard look in the mirror will be required before we can hope to have all the answers.
When asked about the external environment, 87% cite government measures, such as the Lobbying Act, as a threat to campaign legitimacy. Two-thirds also identified caution by senior managers and trustees as a threat. Funding conditions and negative media coverage were cited by a majority of respondents.
No surprises, perhaps.
Asked about the impact on their work, though, only a third said that caution was a problem in their own organisation. Just 13% reported campaigning had been reduced.
What is happening here? Are narratives about the Lobbying Act, plummeting trust and gagging clauses blowing the problem out of proportion? Is the bark of these measures worse than their actual bite? Or are campaigners adapting their activities to fit the new risk-averse atmosphere?
There are other possible explanations for the apparent inconsistency between the perception of threats and their reported impact. It’s possible, for example, to keep up the volume of campaigning, but to not campaign as hard or as sharply as you once did. Self-censorship reduced ambition, and simply ‘going through the motions’ are all real dangers in an uncertain and apparently hostile political environment. We need more subtle and qualitative research to establish the how far the threat lies outside the sector, and how far it is driven by responses to genuine risks, as well as perceptions of risk.
I believe that the Lobbying Act is bad law. Regardless of your position on its objectives, its retrospective nature and lack of clarity cannot be allowed to stand. Even the Electoral Commission and Charities Commission struggle to issue usable guidance.
But limiting our impact through fear, or abandoning change that could improve people’s lives, is bad campaigning. Worse, it could contravene the very purpose and mission of your organisation.
Of course we must continue to demand clarity and coherence from our legal and regulatory framework. But we should match that with a commitment to keep making the case for campaigning – both a legal right and a moral duty – and not be cowed by undefined threats.