Wanted: Stronger Emphasis on the Positive Impact of Advocacy
19 March 2015 at 10:54 am
In an environment where the legitimacy or relevance of advocacy by charities is sometimes questioned, we need to illustrate its real and tangible impact more proactively writes Krystian Seibert, Policy & Research Manager with Philanthropy Australia.
It seems that advocacy by charities never stops being a politically charged issue.It’s an issue that again came up during 2014, with one Member of Federal Parliament calling for some environmental advocacy groups to be stripped of their charitable tax concessions.
2014 also saw changes to funding arrangements for community legal centres, which no longer allow Federal Government funding to be used to undertake law or policy reform activities, and also the removal of Federal Government funding from environmental legal centres and some social services peak bodies.
It’s not just an issue in Australia – arguably it’s perhaps an even bigger issue in the United Kingdom, where the new 'Lobbying Act' has been strongly opposed by charities, but also provided another opportunity to debate the role charities play in arguing for changes to laws and government policy.
It’s in the context of this debate that some particularly interesting polling was undertaken for philanthropy think tank New Philanthropy Capital and analysed in their report Having their Say: What the Public Likes and Dislikes About Charities. It found that 47 per cent of those surveyed agreed that ‘Charities should just concentrate on helping people in need, rather than campaigning to change society as a whole’, while only 24 per cent disagreed.
Interestingly, different polling undertaken by consultancy nfpSynergy found that 58 per cent of those surveyed agreed charities should be able to campaign to change laws and government policies relevant to their work’, while only 10 per cent disagreed.
These public attitudes do provide some interesting insights for us in Australia.
It’s not surprising that in the polling undertaken for New Philanthropy Capital, those surveyed preferred charities to "help those in need" rather than to "campaign to change society as a whole". The first is a very practical activity, the second sounds rather quite "pie in the sky".
However when you frame the question around "campaigning to change laws and government policies relevant to their work", as in the polling undertaken for nfpSynergy, the level of public support is markedly different. Changing laws and Government policies relevant to the work of charities comes across as quite practical and arguably more directly related to the mission of a charity than "changing society as a whole".
When it comes to the activities charities undertake, there’s often an artificial divide drawn between so called "frontline service delivery", e.g working in a shelter for the homeless, versus advocacy, e.g seeking to change laws and Government policies so there is less homelessness in the first place.
One activity is often viewed as practical and hands on – the other sometimes regarded as of questionable value or perhaps even a distraction from ‘real’ charity work.
However it’s a mistaken view – advocacy is an important tool in the charity toolbox. It’s no less practical than frontline service delivery, but rather complementary – advocacy can and does lead to real and tangible change which improves the lives of people ‘at the front line’ right across our community.
The project’s Impact Directory lists the outcomes of hundreds of advocacy initiatives across the United States. Not all the initiatives can have their impact measured in dollar terms, but for those which can, the total impact amounts to nearly US$27 Billion!
I’m sure if we looked at the impact of advocacy by charities in Australia we would see a similar story. The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a good example – without advocacy by charities it wouldn’t have happened, and it will empower hundreds of thousands of Australians in very measurable terms.
Another less well known example would be the work of the Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre, strongly supported by philanthropy, to address racial profiling of African Australians by Victoria Police. This work has led to systemic change within Victoria Police.
There are hundreds more stories like these, demonstrating the real and tangible impact of advocacy by charities.
In an environment where the legitimacy or relevance of advocacy by charities is sometimes questioned, it’s all the more important to emphasise this impact.
This will assist in shifting the conversation away from the artificial divide drawn between "frontline service delivery" and advocacy, but also help educate Government and the wider public about the role of advocacy by charities and how it benefits our community.
Hopefully this will prevent any attempts to curtail the ability of charities to undertake advocacy, and instead perhaps possibly lead to more active support for these activities by Governments.
It will also be important for building a stronger case for why philanthropy should fund advocacy by charities.
In many instances, philanthropy has been closely engaged as a supporter of advocacy initiatives by charities. The work of Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre referred to above had strong support from philanthropy, and philanthropy also played a key role supporting advocacy initiatives which lead to the establishment of the NDIS.
However there is an argument that advocacy does not yet receive sufficient attention from philanthropy.
Emphasising the impact of advocacy can only help to redress this imbalance, and there is certainly reason to be positive in this regard as global trends seem to be on the side of advocacy!
Recently the 2015 BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index found that "systems-change philanthropy" was seen as the fourth most promising trend by philanthropists worldwide – and ‘systems-change philanthropy’ is just a fancy way of describing philanthropic support for advocacy. Around the world, philanthropy is becoming more aware of the importance of advocacy and why it needs to be supported.
Here in Australia we need a stronger focus on emphasising advocacy’s positive impact.
About the author: Krystian Seibert is a regular columnist for Pro Bono Australia on philanthropy, public policy and research. He is the Policy & Research Manager with Philanthropy Australia and tweets at @KSeibertAu