Local councillors in the UK may not have the same public profile as their national counterparts in parliament but nevertheless they wield significant influence on the decisions made in their areas. Every year, central and local government spends around £15 billion on grants and contracts with charities. As a major partner and source of funding, policymakers on a local level are vital to the functioning of charities on the ground. To this end, effective communication between charities and local councillors is key to unlocking the full potential of this important relationship. 

Pro Bono Economics is dedicated to helping the social sector build a UK with higher wellbeing for all and, through the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, has been speaking with and surveying policymakers on their perceptions of the charity sector. This research is designed to help charities ensure they get the most out of their interactions with councillors today and into the future. Here are the six key things for charities to consider when trying to influence and build relationships with councillors: 
1. Councillors are keen to understand their local charity sector better 

Many councillors undertake their role on a part-time basis, and they are often pressured for time. This is because regular councillors (those who aren’t leaders of their groups or members of the cabinet) receive an annual allowance of between £10,000 to £16,000 a year for being a councillor, and so a large number have other employment to make ends meet. For charities, this makes communicating effectively with councillors very important.  

This starts with helping councillors understand the local charity landscape. Many councillors say there is confusion about which charities work with their council, and they say they often only become aware of smaller organisations when they receive requests from them for help. This can make the relationship very one-sided. Individual charities, as well as local infrastructure organisations and collectives, can help councillors understand the charity landscape in their area, as well as individual needs, in order to get the best out of them. 

2. Finding the right councillor to work with is difficult but crucial

Councillors say that they do recognise that local government structures are not always transparent or easy for charities to identify. But because so many are time-poor, the more charities can try and identify the right councillor to engage with, the more likely they are to succeed. 

There are two reasons a councillor might be interested in the work of a charity. It is often because a charity operates in the ward they represent, or because it works on an issue they are interested in. Finding out which councillor represents a ward is simple to achieve through Write To Them, but discovering their topics of interest is harder. Looking at the committees a councillor is part of on their council’s website can help. Charities should then be very clear in their communications with a councillor about the reason they’ve specifically reached out to that individual. 

Group Officers can also play a helpful role here. The largest political parties on a council will often have a Group Officer (e.g., Labour Group Officer or Conservative Group Officer) whose job it is to coordinate actions across the local party’s councillors. They have lots of insight into the interests of each councillor and can be a handy gateway to the right individuals.

3.Councillors value charities for the evidence, insights and links into communities that they can provide 

Councillors value charities for a very wide range of things, but one of the most important is the evidence and insights that charities can provide, which can help councillors make better decisions and run more powerful campaigns. Indeed, in the Commission’s survey, councillors said they were more likely to have used the evidence or insights provided by a local charity than those provided by a local business – with half (49%) saying they had used the evidence or insights provided by a charity they are familiar with in the past 12 months, and only a third (32%) saying the same about businesses. This suggests that there is enormous practical value for charities in keeping in touch with the right councillors.

4. Councillors prefer working with charities and community groups in-person where possible

The Commission research found that 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. This means that charities can potentially gain a lot by adding their local councillors to their invitee lists for open days and other public events. Not only can charities provide councillors with insight into the work they do, most councillors will also share charities’ events and fundraisers with their own local networks - driving up awareness and attendance. Councillors can then also use the opportunity to meet with local residents (who might vote for them) so these opportunities can benefit both sides. Nearly seven in 10 councillors (69%) also consider the websites of organisations as an important channel of communication. 

5. Councillors say charities can make the most of their contact by communicating in a tailored, frequent and detailed way

When asked what charities and community groups could do to provide more useful or accessible information, nearly one in three councillors (31%) told the Commission that organisations should tailor information more to their area of work. The same proportion of councillors (31%) wanted to see more detailed outputs from charities, while 29% of councillors surveyed said they would value more frequent communications from charities and community groups. 

6. It is worth recognising that some Labour and Tory councillors have opposing views of the charity sector

When contacting councillors, charities should consider that for some there are differences in opinion about the charity sector that tend to run along party lines. The Commission research identified that a clear majority of Conservative councillors (59%) believe charities are politically biased, while the same proportion of Labour councillors (59%) think they are not. This perception is helpful for charities to keep in mind when trying to work across party lines.  

On a similar note, more than half of Conservative councillors (55%) think the evidence produced by charities can be “partial or flaky”, whereas only a quarter of Labour councillors (25%) think the same.  This illustrates the importance of charities using strong, reliable evidence when communicating with councillors. 

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