What is the right balance for charities to strike between ‘working on behalf of’ and ‘working with’ the people they represent, especially when it comes to campaigning?
On the page, the difference is a few words. In reality, the difference is significant. Moving from ‘working on behalf of’ to ‘working with’ requires a change in culture, structures, decision-making and co-operation between teams. Changing those few words should trigger significant organizational and personal development – for staff, for boards and, vitally, for your beneficiaries.
We could all learn from organisations like Southall Black Sisters, who for decades have been an excellent example of a community organisation that strikes a balance between employing professional staff and empowering people affected by gender-related violence to campaign. Its Director, Pragna Patel, says that involving service users is important because without them an organisation (and its paid staff) lacks integrity and legitimacy. It is impossible to campaign effectively without drawing on the insight of the people you work with. How do you know what the crucial issues that need to be addressed are if you don’t have a close connection with the group of people you seek to represent?
Patel absolutely acknowledges a role for paid staff in speaking truth to power. She says there is sometimes a danger that service users are more easily diverted by government and that professionals can be more savvy when it comes to recognising the tricks government uses to co-opt campaigners to their own agenda (of course, professional campaigners are at risk of co-option too). I worry about the motives of ministers who increasingly seek out small service-user led organisations to engage in dialogue about policies such as welfare reform, while larger charities are marginalised.
There is no doubt that this is a difficult political environment to campaign in. Some politicians are hostile to charities campaigning at all, and the Lobbying Act has led some trustees to be excessively cautious. Certainly, reliance on one large organization to represent people’s experiences can be a double-edged sword: big on volume and expertise, but easy to shut out of the room if they become an irritant.
Charities should see this existential threat as an opportunity. It is a strong reason to reflect on their approach to influencing, and to consider whether campaigners should enable people affected by policies to speak truth to power directly rather than relying on a charity as a mouthpiece. Even so, some people cannot campaign for themselves (perhaps they are too ill, for example) and look to charities to represent them and campaign on their behalf. That is completely legitimate. My argument is not for charities to completely hand over the reins of campaigning exclusively to people with direct experience of the issues, but to work in partnership with them.
Some, like Southall Black Sisters, have been doing it for years. Others still need to adapt their methods so they are more often ‘working with’ people. That means linking with informal structures and grassroots networks already in existence and helping new ones to thrive. It means giving people the skills to campaign and then trusting them to get on with it and do a good job, continuing to provide support through coaching and more skills training as required. It means reviewing what you count as success, adapting how you will assess risk and hold your campaigners accountable, and what organizational resources will be deployed to support the new approach.
The headline message from the latest SMK Campaigner Survey is that charities need to ‘be bolder and be better’. Putting people with lived experience in greater control of your campaigning is not a quick win, by any means, but I believe it can transform charities’ impact and legitimacy in a lasting way.
Emma Taggart is a coach, facilitator and consultant working with clients in all sectors to help people think clearly, improve workplace performance and develop leadership skills. Her special interests reflect her personal experience and include helping introverts to thrive at work and supporting charities to make social change.