The relationship between charities and policymakers matters immensely. Charities are major public service providers. They provide evidence and insight that policymakers would otherwise struggle to find. They act on behalf of overlooked groups and they create connections within communities which underpin the trusting relationships that individuals and government both rely on. Deep and collaborative partnerships between the two help charities to perform all these roles more effectively and sustainably and enable government to improve the effectiveness of policy and delivery.

There is clearly a strong bedrock of mutual respect and engagement between policymakers and charities. However, this research suggests that there is considerable appetite to build on this, with a strong case to expand opportunities for formal links between civil servants and the charity sector and to increase the capacity for greater joint working at a local level.  

This research examines the views of MPs, councillors and civil servants working across the UK. It uncovers the many strengths in their relationships with charities, the areas where these can be further developed and points towards changes that could improve understanding and collaboration between them.

Whether as part of their official roles or in their personal lives, policymakers at all levels and across parties have a very high level of varied contacts with charities. Almost all MPs and councillors have communicated with charities and community groups, particularly local groups. A higher proportion of politicians have volunteered or been a trustee of a charity than in the population as a whole, and just over half of civil servants have had some active engagement with charities, although less than politicians.

There is a clear desire for policymakers in all parties and at all positions to create even deeper links between themselves and charities, both personally for individuals but for their departments, council groups and parties too. This creates an opportunity to be seized. 

To grasp this opportunity, it is important to understand what policymakers value most about the charity sector. There is widespread agreement that charities play an important part in UK society and in the lives of local communities, and that they will be key to the UK’s recovery from Covid and to levelling up the country. Policymakers believe that the most important roles played by charities are raising awareness and bringing communities together to work on issues that affect them. They also recognise charities are vital in improving people’s health and well-being. However, charities are not currently seen by policymakers to be major actors in supporting a strong economy and a skilled and engaged workforce.

Many charities and community groups devote substantial time and resources to advocacy and campaigning activity, from trying to influence action internationally to address global issues like climate, to organising hyper-local petitions to improve aspects of local areas. Policymakers are more divided in their opinions of this. Conservative MPs believe that charities should not campaign to change policy if they receive public money. However, this is not the view of Labour MPs, most councillors across parties and civil servants do not share this view.  

The level of trust placed in charities varies according to the role played by the charity and policymakers’ own political views. Most policymakers of all backgrounds trust charities to bring people together to address social issues in their communities. The vast majority of Labour MPs and councillors trust charities to tell the truth about the scale of a problem, to accurately represent the views of the communities they serve and to provide services reliably and on budget. However, far fewer Conservative MPs and councillors trust charities on these fronts. Labour MPs and councillors are also confident in the quality of the evidence provided by charities, but the majority of Conservative MPs and councillors, and around four in ten civil servants, believe it can be partial or flaky.

Most policymakers believe charities are effective, but there are some divisions in their views of different aspects of charities’ performance. Large majorities of Labour MPs and councillors believe charities are efficient but understaffed. By contrast, Conservative MPs and councillors are more likely to think that they are wasteful, rather than understaffed. Civil servants agree that charities are understaffed but also believe that they can be amateurish or unprofessional.

Although most MPs are in contact with charities and find it easy to connect with them, they are not always satisfied with the nature of this contact. In particular, they want more personalised approaches, building on their individual interests. They tend to be irritated rather than influenced by more ‘broad brush’ approaches to campaigning and communication. By contrast, councillors would like to understand the sector better and would welcome more detailed and frequent communication. Civil servants rely on written communication to a greater extent than other policymakers but are also keen to develop long-term, trust-based relationships with charities they perceive as being professional and knowledgeable. Both MPs and civil servants are frustrated by a lack of understanding among some charities about how government and policymaking work. This reduces charities’ impact and damages their relationships and influence with policymakers.

This research has highlighted three key challenges which hold back effective collaboration between policymakers and charities:

  • A knowledge gap. Charities and community groups don’t understand enough about the structures, processes and culture that shape national and local policymaking. Policymakers don’t understand enough about the charity sector and what it does.

  • Scepticism about the quality of evidence, campaigning and services delivered by some charities and community groups. Some of the concerns raised by policymakers about charities’ role and functioning are also recognised by many within the sector as areas which could be improved. To make progress, there is a need for action both from charities themselves and from the funders and policymakers who create the environment within which they work.

  • Some genuine disagreements about the role charities should play, especially if they receive any public money. These tensions are real but should not be allowed to obscure the high levels of engagement and respect that nonetheless exist between many charities and policymakers.

A stronger partnership between policymakers and charities is both possible and readily achievable. Increasing opportunities for civil servants to volunteer and experience life within the charity sector would benefit individual personal development, support charities in their understanding of government, and increase the civil service’s awareness of the real issues charities beneficiaries are experiencing – improving policymaking on multiple fronts. There are brilliant examples of where local authorities and charities are already working hand in hand to great effect. Expanding the capacity for this collaboration would help unleash real results within communities. And funders, government and charities themselves can help to improve charities’ effectiveness and build trust, particularly in relation to evidence, campaigning and service delivery.

Taking these steps to build on the good links already in place and to harness the appetite to do more benefits everyone. A deeper partnership between policymakers and charities is a vital route to both better policymaking and delivery across this suite of issues both sides are passionate about, ultimately improving lives. It truly is in our shared interest to act.

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Key Findings