Comment: The squeeze on charities is slowly crushing the third sector

By Dr Russell Hargrave

Charities are facing the squeeze. Not just financially — although that is certainly happening too—but from the pressure of political and public opinion.

In recent months a range of voices, including some leading political figures, have taken to the media to attack particular charities. Some charities been judged too political, some too left-wing, some too litigious. Backbench MPs have called in the regulator to investigate individual thinktanks and campaigns (the Charity Commission responded last month by warning voluntary organisations not to "damage the reputation or impact on public trust" of the work they do).

Against this backdrop, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) has been working with pollsters Ipsos Mori to investigate public attitudes towards charities. Our findings on campaigning are published in a new report today, which should move some in the sector to think carefully. When the last charities minister asked the sector to "stick to their knitting", there was an instant backlash against his comments—but our number-crunching suggests that he was in tune with large sections of the public.

By hefty margins, voters on the right of the political spectrum — the natural audience of those sorts of media interventions — want charities to spend less time campaigning and more time helping people on the ground. This is the view of the majority of Conservative supporters (55%) and an even more substantial majority of Ukippers (67%). And while opinion is more balanced as you move left across the spectrum (broadly speaking, Labour and Lib Dem supporters are split on what charities should get up to), those right-wing majorities stand out.

Dig into the data a little more, and other trends emerge. Who has the strongest preference against charity campaigning? Men more than women, it seems, as well as those over 55 years old and people living on lower incomes.

As ever with public polling, the implications can be difficult to unpick. After all, tens of thousands of charities work on the ground helping people every day, with no time or inclination to worry about changing society as a whole. For them, these numbers are probably good news. And there is still a decent-sized chunk even of Tory supporters (about one in five) who are happy to see charities campaigning for social change.

But lots of charities do campaign, and some have the resources and clout to enjoy a big media splash when they do (you couldn't move far this week for coverage of Oxfam's 1% campaign, for example, which attracted both criticism and endorsement along the way). Evidently, people have strong feelings not just about the content of these campaigns but about whether charities should be pursuing them in the first place. This is unlikely to have much of an impact on the campaigning plans of the Oxfams of this world, but they’d be foolish to ignore the views of a big slice of the population.

Dr Rob Johns, in his introductory essay to the excellent Sex, Lies & the Ballot Box, argues that the previous night's news can exert a remarkably swift influence over public opinion. In the charity world, turning on the news and opening the papers hasn't always been a happy experience of late. Organisations stand accused of over-paying their staff, concentrating on the wrong things and 'wasting' money entrusted to them—and whatever the basis for these claims, charities should be mindful of the way this coverage can filter into public scepticism.

The response to political scrutiny and public criticism so far has been mixed. Privately, some charities are unhappy that the criticism has been so one-sided, and they may have a point. There has been a concerted effort to highlight and attack rates of CEO pay, for example (something which, unsurprisingly, was also raised by respondents to our polling).

Yet very few charities have taken the next step of challenging their detractors head-on, by explaining how they decide on rates of pay and how they achieve everything they do using the resources they have. In the short-term it's a risky approach, for sure: it will invite more scrutiny and most likely more criticism. But in the long-term it's probably the only sensible option if charities are to hit back against political sniping and public unease.

Dr Russell Hargrave is media manager at the thinktank NPC, which is publishing its polling report Having Their Say today. NPC sits on the Understanding Charities Group, a collection of charities and think tanks committed to improving public trust in the sector.

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