Friday 5 September 2014

Adam Boulton looks at the charity sky, and a visit to Manchester

Adam Boulton, the ace political commentator for Sky TV, came to speak at one of our ACEVO leadership lunches. These are one of the secret treasures of ACEVO: a good lunch, top class speakers and splendid food and wine to aid mental digestion. And Adam did not disappoint. 

We were lunching in the aftermath of ‘Brooksgate' - where our Minister has quickly learnt how strongly our sector defends its independence. Adam had some wise words about our positioning as charities. He said that what the media want from charities is an independent voice and to hear our expertise. They are keen for facts to back up or to make a story. For the media it is our independence that matters, and so being seen to be aligned with a party, or what may appear as 'too party political,’ will be a problem. 

Of course the boundaries here are blurred. If you campaign on poverty is that seen as aligning yourself too much with the left? And if we point to the injustice created by the bedroom tax is that seen as party political? It can be difficult for charity leaders who want to put across hard and often blunt messages. Increasingly, some seem to assume that being ‘political’ means you’re necessarily taking partisan sides - something which is never the case. Charities speak for our beneficiaries and our missions - never for political parties.

Campaigning is part and parcel of our ‘knitting'. Though I have to say this is a very odd analogy, and for that we do not have Brooks to blame - but rather one of the Charity Commissioners who clearly, unlike Brooks, does not like campaigning and gave a very unwise interview in Third Sector making this silly analogy. My mother, who is a great knitter (her knitted swimming trunks for me when I was a boy were a marvel), would thoroughly object to the analogy as she is a great believer in charity campaigning.  

I had to miss the farewell party for Hurd in Waterloo as I was speaking on the ‘Prometheus’ course for third sector leaders at the Manchester Business School. It was a great session. I talked about the complexities of leadership in challenging times, and the dilemmas we face when we want to grow our delivery role but maintain our independence  and our voice. There is much more public scrutiny of charities and we need to do better in talking about our impact. And we need to balance the need to be professional and passionate about our cause. 

I encouraged the good folk of the sector to take heart; we represent a truly great sector that historically has bound together our democracy and provided social cohesion as well as delivering services that citizens and communities need. The voice of civil society remains crucial to strong public debate and to better law making and policy development. We should not be afraid of the need to campaign hard and to be heard, but there is a skill in doing this, in knowing the balance between speaking out and talking behind closed doors. Courage, mon brave, as someone once said. 

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