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Over the past few weeks the charity sector has been drawn into the debate about government proposals to limit potential charity ‘lobbying’ by inserting clauses into grant offer letters. NCVO has recently written a letter to the Prime Minister countersigned by charity CEOs, and is actively briefing peers, politicians and government officials about the proposed move.

At CDF we are not so concerned about the detail of this issue, which in our experience as both a giver and receiver of grants is what a charity already self-manages in relation to charity law. But there are three things that stand out about the debate itself.

Selective hearing

Firstly, NCVO’s letter quite rightly points out that niche charities have actively supported government policy development. It explains how a detailed understanding of a subject context and knowledge of dealing with an issue, (often built up over years) have been critical to informing policy and legislation. What is the difference then, between a grant supporting work that generates evidence, that is viewed as valuable because it aligns to a political manifesto, as opposed to supporting evidence-based activity which may rub-up against an administration’s philosophy?

Smoke and mirrors

Secondly, as politicians and legislators ride the crest of the charity-knocking wave – some of it self-inflicted by the sector – in our ‘victim’ role, we fail to miss a much more serious point. The requirement to stifle both the sector’s knowledge and expertise is not being applied to the for-profit sector. On Tuesday the National Audit Office released a report on the receipt of gifts and hospitality in government departments, mostly from large corporations. There is also the growing nervousness around the financial markets and whether another recession is on its way. Fuelling the media appetite for negative stories on charities takes the public’s eye off the next major ‘mishaps’ on the horizon. The pursuit of the charity sector – small fry in the scale of things – begins to look like smoke and mirrors.

Deflection theory

Thirdly, I am rather weary of the Kids Company debate. It has done enough to provoke some introspection and anxiety amongst charity boards and chief executives across the UK. But there were a number of references to cosy political relationships and the current storm in the charity teacup helpfully deflects us from the less than transparent negotiations that take place in parliament and government, as the NAO report highlights.

Wood for the trees

What, then, is the overall message? As a chief executive you learn that whilst you need to be aware of the detail, you also need to keep focussed on the bigger picture. Getting sucked into the minutiae of grant agreement clauses as part of the former, may detract sector leaders from keeping their eye on the latter.

Finally, as an eternal optimist, perhaps this current debate may also be viewed positively. Whilst our sector both can’t and financially isn’t able to match the political lobbying of large corporates, it may simply be that politicians are starting to get anxious by our sector’s presence. That in times of greatest need, charities simply turn up the volume when they ‘speak truth to power’. Charities shine their light more intensely on the effect of political decisions on those in society that they have been set up to serve – and that can be terribly uncomfortable in Whitehall.