Third Sector Trends Report: Limiting charities’ campaigning activities may backfire on government

Third Sector Trends in England and Wales 2022: relationships, influencing and collaboration

Third Sector Trends has been surveying the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector every three years since 2010. In 2022, 6,070 responses were received across England and Wales (an average of ~600 responses in each region).

This is the only fully representative longitudinal survey which can produce robust and detailed comparative analysis at a regional and national level.

The project is funded in 2022 by Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, Power to Change, Barrow Cadbury Trust and Millfield House Foundation.

This is the fourth of five reports from Third Sector Trends England and Wales 2022.

Download the full report here

Relationships within the Third Sector

The Third Sector is lauded in policy circles for its willingness and ability to work effectively in partnership. Partnership working can take many forms:

  • 73 per cent of TSOs are currently engaged in ‘informal relationships’ with other voluntary organisations and groups and another 9 per cent would like to work this way.
  • 65 per cent of organisations work closely but only semi-formally with other TSOs. Complementary working is an option 11 per cent of organisations are considering.
  • A third of TSOs work in formal partnership arrangements (34%) and another fifth are interested in doing so. Almost half (47%) of the sector is disinterested in formal partnership working.

The Coronavirus pandemic has not undermined sector commitment to partnership working. Informal and complementary approaches to partnership working have declined a little since 2019 because many micro and small TSOs were less active or hibernating. Formal partnership working has increased very slightly.

Relationships with the local public sector

Years of government austerity policy has decimated many local authority budgets. And yet, the majority of Third Sector organisations have consistently felt that their work is valued and well supported by local public sector organisations.

TSOs are now more likely to feel that local public sector organisations keep them informed about issues affecting them than in 2010 (rising from 62% in 2010 to 72% in 2022).

While only about half of TSOs feel that their organisation is appropriately involved in developing and implementing policies that are relevant to them, this has remained unchanged since 2014.

During the pandemic, a third of TSOs were approached by local public sector bodies for their assistance. About 40 per cent of TSOs have no relationship with the local public sector, but amongst those which do, 36 per cent of micro organisations and 80 per cent of the biggest TSOs

Influencing local social and public policy

Third Sector Trends has looked at organisational willingness to engage in debates about local social and public policy.

  • Almost three-quarters of TSOs steer clear of local political issues (73%). Only 9 per cent of organisations are strongly committed to do so. 
  • About 71% of TSOs participate in formal consultations about local social and public policy – but enthusiasm is muted: only 21 per cent commit strongly.
  • Nearly half of TSOs (47%) agree that they campaign to influence local policy.
  • A third of organisations delegate responsibility for engagement with local social and public policy to local Third Sector infrastructure organisations.
  • Lobbying behind the scenes to influence policy is an option few TSOs take. Only 9 per cent of TSOs strongly agree that they do this.

Organisation size has a big impact on engagement with local social and public policy. The biggest TSOs are much more likely to do so, but the role smaller organisations play must not be discounted because they are much more numerous.

TSOs based in the poorest areas where critical and pernicious personal and social needs tend to be concentrated are much more likely to engage in all aspects of influencing than organisations in the wealthiest areas.

Influencing for beneficiary groups

In government White Papers and major opposition parties’ policy statements on social wellbeing, it has long-since been recognised that the local Third Sector makes a valuable contribution to local social wellbeing. Nevertheless, over the last decade, government unease about the power of the sector’s voice in expressing opposition to policy initiatives has been evident.

And so, while the Third Sector is encouraged to play a facilitative role in local decision making, concerns about the legality of campaigning have been inflamed by the Charity Commission’s recent publication of draft guidance to charity trustees on the use of social media for campaign purposes.

Third Sector Trends demonstrates, for the first time at national level, how much political activity at the local level is going on.

  • 73 per cent of organisations take the view that they do not engage in local political activity; 43 per cent express this view strongly. Only 9 per cent of organisations are strongly committed to engaging with local political issues. 
  • is not an option many TSOs choose to take. Only 9 per cent of TSOs strongly agree that they do this – but another third agree that this is an option they sometimes take. A clear majority (57%) do not try to influence policy from ‘behind the scenes’ (and 28% are more adamant in this position).

The guidance reassures trustees that charities can ‘engage on emotive or controversial topics if this is a way of achieving its charitable purpose’, but asserts that trustees must take action if social media has ‘problematic content’. The incidence of digital campaigning varies by size of organisations.

The purposes of digital campaigning can be identified by looking at the beneficiaries served by organisations.

As Rob Williamson, Chief officer of the Community Foundation said:

“There’s talk in all sectors about the value of collaboration and this report shows the depth and importance of the sector’s internal and external relationships. These relationships maintain the third sector’s social impact because, collectively, the sector as a whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. It’s not all about formal partnership working, complementary action is vital too – where organisations stay independent but work collectively towards a common purpose.”

As the report’s author, Professor Tony Chapman of Durham University said:

“Becoming agitated about illegitimate political activities of charities, like as not, reveals as much about the government’s political insecurities as it does about the sector itself: not least because the enormous range of political opinion and activity within the Third Sector is so complex that it defies meaningful categorisation.

“The Third Sector is full of strong-willed people, who are committed to the causes that they pursue. And rarely is the sector shy of raising its objections when injustices are thought to have been committed. Surely, sustaining productive relationships between government and the third sector is much more important to Ministers when trying to achieve national, regional and local objectives than fussing about tweets.”

Laura Seebohm, Chair – Millfield House Foundation, said:

“It has never been more important for VCSE sector organisations to engage in policy and campaigning activities, on behalf of the communities they work with. It is therefore heartening to see sector organisations finding time and energy, against the odds, to advocate for wider change.”