• Latest research by PBE for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society 
  • Six in 10 MPs and 65% of councillors would like more contact with charities 
  • Calls for improved charity outreach and more support from Whitehall 

Charities should avoid excessive blanket emails to MPs and councillors and focus instead on one-to-one meetings and events, according to new research. 

A new study for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society found that MPs and councillors across the UK prefer personalised communications from charities that are tailored to their areas of interest. 

Civil servants and MPs who took part in the study also pointed to a lack of knowledge about how government works as a key area of improvement for charities trying to influence them. 

Despite this, there is significant appetite among policymakers for a closer relationship with charities. Nearly six in 10 MPs (59%) surveyed would like to see more engagement, while close to two-thirds (65%) of councillors would like to see their local authority more engaged and 60% of civil servants think the government should do more to engage with civil society. 

The new report carried out by Pro Bono Economics for the two-year Commission, titled A Shared Interest: The relationships between policymakers and charities, is the most comprehensive review of the social sector’s interactions with policymakers ever conducted. 

Drawing on the findings of a survey of more than 700 councillors, MPs and civil servants, as well as interviews and a roundtable with policymakers, academics and charity figures, the report found a “good bedrock of mutual respect and appreciation” between charities and policymakers. 

But it also identifies a number of areas where the relationships can be improved through changes in approach from both charities and policymakers.  

This includes the need for better understanding on both sides. The report says charities would benefit from improving their knowledge of how local and national policymaking works, while noting that policymakers too should extend their understanding of the charity sector and the work it does. 

There are also calls for an improvement to the quality of evidence, campaigning and services delivered by charities. However, the report points out that progress requires funders and policymakers to support charities in this work. 

The Commission makes a number of recommendations to help solve the challenges. These include the introduction of a civil service campaign across departments promoting greater take up of volunteering and secondments in the charity sector.  

According to the report, this will help meet the government’s commitment to bring in more outside perspectives to Whitehall, help civil servants develop their skills in collaboration, improve their understanding of civil society and contribute valuable skills and insights to charities they work with. 

There are also recommendations that charity bosses and umbrella bodies lead work in the sector to boost the quality of evidence and campaigning, as well as calls for funders to move to longer-term core funding. In addition, the report calls for both funders and the Charity Commission to make the case for the value of charities investing in their staff, volunteers and skills. 

The report points to a number of prominent charity campaigns as ‘best practice’ examples that should be used in training to demonstrate effective, strategic communications. These include the Shelter-led campaign on the eviction ban, The Children’s Society campaigning on free school meals and the campaigning of medical charities such as the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum. 

Among a wide range of findings, the survey found that policymakers believe charities have a crucial role to play in the biggest challenges facing the nation currently.  

Over half of civil servants (55%) and more than seven in ten MPs (71%) and councillors (74%) say that charities and community groups will be important to help the country level up, with strong agreement across political parties. 

This is underpinned by phenomenally high levels of contact between MPs, councillors and charities. More than nine in 10 councillors and MPs (92%) say they have had contact with a local or national charity in the last year. 

But too many civil servants are cut off from the support and insights of civil society, with only a third (34%) having had contact with a charity in the last 12 months.  

Across all three groups of policymakers, there is not just demand for simply more contact but, crucially, better quality engagement: 

  • The survey found that a majority of MPs (61%) believe the most important improvement charities could make to their communications is tailoring it to the MP’s area of work. 
  • More than two-thirds of MPs (69%) said their preferred method of communication is one-to-one meetings and 65% of MPs think attending an event organised by a charity is an important way to communicate. 
  • Similarly, three-quarters of councillors see one-to-one meetings (75%) and attending events (74%) as the most important methods of contact with charities and community groups. Like MPs, almost one in three councillors (31%) want civil society organisations to tailor information more to their area of work. 
  • However, the most effective means of communication from charities for civil servants is written reports, with just over six in 10 (61%) saying this is their preference. The survey also found 58% value looking at a charity’s website and 55% like one-to-one meetings. 

Through interviews and discussion, the study found that both MPs and civil servants are frustrated at the lack of understanding among some charities about how government and the civil service works, as well as a perceived lack of professionalism from some groups. 

Councillors also believe their engagement with the charity sector could be improved by a better understanding of each other’s responsibilities and policy areas. In fact, 31% of councillors say they would like more detailed communication from charities and 29% say they would like to receive information more frequently. 

The report found that MPs, councillors and civil servants have a high level of trust in charities to bring people together to address social issues in their communities.  

But both civil servants and Conservative MPs and councillors are more sceptical about whether charities provide services reliably and on budget and about the accuracy of their evidence. The survey found: 

  • Only 35% of civil servants, 40% of Conservative MPs and 35% of Conservative councillors trust charities to provide services reliably and on budget.  
  • In addition, only 53% of civil servants, 42% of Conservative MPs and 35% of Conservative councillors trust charities to tell them the truth about the scale of a problem.  

However, the majority of Conservative MPs (62%) say they use evidence and insights provided by charities they know, which suggests this scepticism can be overcome if a charity builds a personal relationship with an MP. 

The new report for the two-year Commission has made a number of recommendations to improve relationships and collaboration between policymakers and charities. The recommendations include: 

To increase contact and mutual understanding between civil servants and charities:

  • The Cabinet Office and DCMS should review the membership of working groups, sector councils and advisory boards across government to ensure charities are better represented so Ministers receive the most accurate perspectives on policy.  
  • Whitehall should carry out a campaign across all departments to boost take up of secondments and volunteering by civil servants.  
  • The National Leadership Centre should work with charities to design a programme of education and training events for the sector, aimed at increasing understanding about government structures and policymaking processes. 

To improve relationships between local policymakers and charities, local authorities should:

  • Bring together working groups of councillors, officers and local charities to co-design a strategic approach to joint working and develop information and guidance that will meet the needs of each side.   
  • Review their approaches to grant-making, commissioning and procurement and shift away from short-term, project funding and towards longer-term funding.  

To improve their effectiveness and build trust, charities should take action. This should include:

  • Those that produce statistics and other evidence should explore adopting the UK Statistics Authority’s Voluntary Code of Practice and work with UKSA and other experts to increase their understanding and skills in producing, interpreting and presenting data robustly.  
  • Those that campaign should avoid ‘broad-brush’ lobbying approaches and use more sophisticated approaches, focusing on personalised communications and building relationships with key MPs and other policymakers.  

To address the issues raised by policymakers, funders must change their practices to support charities. This should include:  

  • Providing longer-term support for core costs, encouraging charities to invest in their staff, volunteers and in developing their skills and capabilities and making the case for the benefits of doing this to the public and politicians.  

Helen Barnard, Research and Policy Director at Pro Bono Economics, said:  

“This groundbreaking study of the relationships between policymakers and civil society in the UK has found a wealth of common ground and mutual respect. Every day, policymakers and charities on a local and national level interact in the shared interests of the communities they serve. 

“But the study also shows that a stronger partnership is both possible and readily available. The levels of engagement between policymakers and charities and their experiences of these interactions vary considerably. There is clearly an appetite from many charities and policymakers for clearer and more collaborative relationships. 

“This requires work from charities in improving their knowledge of policymaking and the way they campaign and communicate with policymakers. But it also requires better support and understanding from councils, MPs, Whitehall and charity funders who all help to shape the environment in which charities work. 

“The Commission has made various recommendations that can help to build on the positive links already apparent throughout the country and harness the full potential of these relationships. A stronger partnership between civil society and policymakers means better policymaking, more vibrant communities and ultimately improvements to lives around the UK.” 

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