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Charities regaining confidence to campaign, survey shows

Charities regaining confidence to campaign, survey shows

Campaigners and change-makers feel public attitudes towards their work are becoming more supportive, despite reporting increasingly negative attitudes amongst politicians and the media, according to the latest Sheila McKechnie Foundation Campaigner Survey. 

189 campaigners and change-makers were surveyed for the Sheila McKechnie Foundation Campaigner Survey this year – the highest since the survey began in 2016. Overall, 30% said things had got better in the past year, while 36% said things had got worse (down from 49% in 2018). Almost half (48%) believe that public attitudes to campaigning have become more positive in the past year, with 45% reporting increasingly negative attitudes amongst politicians and 41% from the media.

Most however (87%) believe the legitimacy of campaigning by civil society is under threat, although this has fallen slightly from 93% in 2018, while 36% say things have got worse in the past year, again a drop from 2018 (49%). 

Where respondents said they thought things had get better for campaigning, this was attributed to a range of factors including increased public action and wins, increased collaboration, and new Electoral Commission guidance.

In terms of why they thought things had got worse, respondents mentioned lack of space for other issues while politicians and public are distracted by political upheaval and Brexit, a hostile environment for campaigning, lack of funding, and organisation attitudes.

This year, the top three factors that respondents say threaten the legitimacy of campaigning are:

  • Conditions on funding that prevent lobbying, campaigning or advocacy (57%)
  • Civil society isn’t as confident and proud about its right to campaign as it should be (53%)
  • General lack of awareness about what civil society campaigning has achieved (52%)

Fewer expressed concern about the Lobbying Act – down from 64% in 2018 to 48% in 2019. A similar number expressed concern about negative media coverage, with less also concerned about a negative public view of civil society campaigning.

More charities are now campaigning to influence legislation than in the previous year, up from 52% in 2018 to 67%, but the number working to change central or local government policy remains static at 78%, while there has been a drop in the number advocating for a particular group (57%) or for their service users (52%). Both are down from 66% and 64% respectively in 2018. Those targeting private sector companies remains stable at 37%.

This year, only 12% report that they or their organisation are campaigning less – half that in 2018. In addition:

  • Over a third (36%) say they are now campaigning more – a threefold rise on 2017 and holding steady
  • 38% report that boards and senior leaders are more positive towards campaigning than this time last year
  • 43% report that other colleagues have a more positive attitude.
  • 9% report a more negative attitude to campaigning amongst trustees and senior leaders, compared to the 37% who reported their boards were more cautious about campaigning last year

Perceptions of funders, both public and independent, remain largely unchanged with 6% reporting more positive attitudes to campaigning among public funders, and 16% saying independent funders are more positive.

Sue Tibballs, Chief Executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, said:

“It is brilliant to see civil society rallying and recovering its confidence to campaign after a long period of feeling conflicted and constrained. Conditions put on public funding have made it difficult for charities to speak up, and the sector has come under sustained pressure from politicians and regulators to step away from political debate. The UK’s civic space is now rated as ‘narrowed’.

“We believe civil society campaigning is a vital part of public debate and of a healthy democracy. Charities exist not just to pick up the pieces of failing systems, but to bear witness to these impacts and argue for changes in attitudes, policy and law.

“Civil society is where most radical social change proceeds from – not from governments. Constraining civil society is not just anti-democratic. It weakens our chances of addressing the very many challenges we face – from polarisation to climate change. SMK will keep working to promote a braver, more united, civil society voice and identity.” 

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter, commented:

“Campaigning is not an added extra to our ‘real’ work – it’s a vital part of it. Our job is to defend everyone’s right to a safe home. That means offering advice and support to millions of people through our frontline services, as well as changing the attitudes, laws, political decisions and systems which can threaten that right. We are proud to campaign for the longer-term solutions that hopefully mean one day no-one will have to turn to us for help. The public are OK with that.”

Melanie May is a journalist and copywriter specialising in writing both for and about the charity and marketing services sectors since 2001. She can be reached via

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