It’s now or not for a long time – charity election strategies
28 March 2019 at 8:47 am
Now is the time for all charities to be finalising their election strategy, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie.
A federal election is going to be called for mid-May. There is less than two weeks left before the current government becomes a caretaker government. Now is the time for all charities to be finalising their election strategy, because if your issue is not on the agenda in the next eight weeks, then it probably will not be on the agenda for the next three years.
Almost every charity in Australia should have some form of election strategy.
While there is no magic template for an election strategy, most framing of these strategies involves identifying the why, what and how.
All charity activity begins with a focus on the charitable purpose. What are you hoping to achieve? What would success look like for you and the communities you serve?
This initial focus is grounded in working towards an ideal, the world you would like to see. Most of us are seeking to achieve change, whether it be within specific communities or more broadly. What are those changes and what would happen if this change was achieved?
It is very important to acknowledge that for some charities the goal is to put themselves out of business by meeting the needs of the community they were set up to address. The why is often not just about outcomes, but also about values. Being clear on the why informs everything that follows.
The second key area is primarily about what role government can play and what you want them to do.
At a very local level, it may be that you need additional funding for your organisation to enable you to achieve more. But addressing local concerns may also be about supporting major policy shifts in the way government systems and services in health, education, housing, employment, welfare, arts, international aid, animal welfare, environmental protection etc all operate to create a need for your services.
It can be difficult to know what you really want from government, but if you do not have an ask of government, you will get lots of support and no commitments.
Perhaps the most challenging part of developing an election strategy is working out the most effective way to advance your ask.
There is a long list of potential election tactics to employ as part of your strategy. These range from writing a few letters to investing significant resources in major national campaigns involving thousands of volunteers, mainstream media and online information.
In my experience, the one thing that all charities should try to do over the next eight weeks is to meet with every major political party candidate in their local electorates.
During election campaigns, politics tends to become more localised with candidates focused on making sure they get the votes they need within their electorates. The big policy announcements at a federal level, leaders debates and major media campaigns all clearly influence voters, but politicians know that meetings with key groups in their electorates can shift votes. Most candidates will happily meet with local charities and offer support to their work. The goal should be for all candidates in your local electorate to be advocates for your work.
Some strategies are now less effective than previously as the major parties have developed streamlined ways to work with larger national organisations, peak bodies and professional lobbyists.
Peak bodies and larger national charities often write to every candidate as part of their election strategy, but most of these letters will end up in a very small number of political party central campaign headquarters. Local candidates are restricted in what they can say and are clearly not able to alter the national policy platforms of their party. Experienced policy experts working in national campaign offices have already begun working on messaging around key issues and linking public concerns to their party platforms.
Mobilising community support is a very good election strategy. If the same issues keep being raised in numerous local electorates, the party machines will seek to address them. The more times your issue is raised and the more places it is raised, the higher the probability that your issue will become a political priority during the election campaign period. This includes the use of mainstream and on-line media outlets.
Some charities deliberately save their strongest stories for during an election period. Human interest, releasing new information, rich portrayal of what it means, peaceful confrontation, providing compelling images/vision/sound – all can be important tactics.
The three things a charity cannot do during an election campaign have been clearly spelled out in the guidance provided by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission, Charities, Elections and Advocacy.
It’s not okay for a charity to:
- have a purpose to promote or oppose a political party or a candidate for political office;
- have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are unlawful; or
- have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are contrary to public policy (which, in this context, means the rule of law, our constitutional system, the safety of the public or national security).
This means you can advocate for your charitable purpose and encourage people to support political candidates that support that purpose. You can lobby, campaign, advocate and advertise about your issue and push candidates and parties to support your policy positions.
Election periods are important for charities. They provide a special opportunity to promote the value of our work, to seek change, and to highlight ways in which charities contribute to building flourishing communities. Taking advantage of elections does not happen by accident.
If charities all work a little harder to communicate our messages during elections, we will be much closer to achieving the kind of Australia we want to live in.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.