Abi is a freelance journalist writing on politics and social issues for the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph and various other outlets.
Do you dream about changing the world? In charity fundraising we have the chance to do that every day – and we do it by telling stories, inspiring supporters, and campaigning for a better future. But let’s not kid ourselves. We work in a challenging sector and it can be hard sometimes to remember the difference we make.
Ivana Bacik, Sean Farell, Karen Ingala Smith, Simone Joyaux and Abi Wilkinson are all helping to change the world we live in – through politics, campaigning, activism and writing. Join them to discuss how we encourage grit and persistence in the non-profit sector, as we take time to listen to each other’s stories, celebrate our successes and fight harder for a better world.
There’s a quote by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano that I think about a lot. In an interview with US magazine The Progressive, he explained: I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.
Though it might seem strange to start an article on the role of charities in such a seemingly negative way – I don’t understand Galeano’s comments as an outright dismissal of the third sector. Rather, he describes a particular approach which may or may not be present in a specific organisation. There’s a difference between working in partnership with the individuals and groups you aim to assist, and adopting an attitude closer to that of a Victorian philanthropist. That is, approaching your charitable efforts with the kindest of intentions, but assuming you know best about the kind of support that will be most useful – and also expecting that clients ought to be grateful.
In a utopian society, most of the charity sector should not exist at all. There’s no good reason why any human being should have to depend on the goodwill of others just to get by. Lots of people feel uncomfortable about being recipients of charity, for understandable reasons. It’s not enjoyable to feel dependent or indebted. We’re socialised to take pride in self-sufficiency. So much of the work of UK non-profits involves attempting to (partially) mitigate existing inequalities and unfairnesses, but that’s not necessarily how it feels. In my view, one of the most important political goals is expanding the universal welfare state to cover all the necessities of life. David Cameron’s “big society” rhetoric was nothing more than an attempt to abdicate responsibility.
Of course, we don’t live in a utopia. And charities are frequently required to plug gaps in welfare provision – something it’s often impossible to do adequately. When organisations like food banks, homelessness shelters and legal advice non-profits are able to draw attention to the direct impact government policy has on demand for their services, that’s immensely valuable for political campaigners.
Obviously, many charities depend on government contracts and are thus wary of appearing too politically partisan for this reason. In recent years non-profits have sometimes faced active efforts to restrict their ability to speak on political matters. I’ve spoken off record to representatives of multiple British charities who felt frustrated at the gag law, introduced by the Conservatives in 2014, which left them unable to comment on issues which arose during the recent UK general election campaign. Even outside of the purdah period, there seems to have been a chilling effect.
I suppose one of the most difficult questions is: what does solidarity actually look like in this context? As a journalist and political campaigner, one of the most useful resources non-profit organisations have to offer from my perspective is information. You’re the people who’re working day in, day out on specific issues. You’re in regular contact with individuals who deserve to be heard by political decision makers – but are frequently shut out of the conversation. You’ve got facts and figures that the government isn’t interested in collecting. In fact, that the government would rather weren’t collected at all. Even if you’re limited in your own ability to use that information for campaigning purposes, you can pass it on to people who aren’t.
Form relationships with specific journalists. If you’ve identified reporters and commentators you trust, consider tipping them off about stories before sending out general press releases. Exclusives are more likely to receive prominent coverage. I’m sure a lot of this advice might seem obvious to communications professionals – but I really want to emphasise the value of nurturing individual relationships.
Also, consider cooperating with activist groups which aren’t registered as non-profits and thus aren’t subject to the same restrictions. I know in housing, particularly, there are some more radical organisations which might benefit from the knowledge of the established charity sector. You don’t have to officially back these kinds of groups in order to assist them by disseminating information. When you publish a report, consider if you could email it out more broadly – not just to the usual politicians and mainstream media outlets.
When charities are able to lend their support to campaigns, it can definitely lend a useful air of legitimacy and help attract wider attention. However, comparatively fringe, radical groups frequently play an important role in driving the conversation forward. To achieve political change it’s going to require the various elements of civil society to pool resources as effectively as possible – and non-profits, trade unions and more informally structured, grassroots activists organisations all have a role to play.
Abi can be found on Twitter @AbiWilks