Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

At ACF's annual conference in November, a straw poll of delegates revealed that a majority were either undertaking or considering work that they broadly characterised as advocacy. In this series, we are speaking to members about how and why they promote greater representation to policy and decision-makers.

The sixth and final article in this series comes from Nick Perks, Trust Secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

This series first appeared in April 2018's Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here.

Tackling the root causes of social ills was a very clear part of Joseph Rowntree’s thinking, and remains essential to our model of working. All of our work is related to looking at systems change rather than just relief of immediate need, but there is a whole range of activities that might come under that – advocacy to influence government policy, campaigning to change the activities of private companies, or seeking to raise awareness or shift attitudes and behaviour in the general public, for example.

Civil society is really important in the services it delivers, being alongside people in need, innovating, addressing local or unpopular issues. It is aware of unheard voices and emerging concerns and has things to say to decision-makers at all levels, bringing information, expertise, and lived experience. If, on the basis of that experience, civil society organisations can persuade government to buy into an issue or meet a need, that can be very powerful.

It would be very easy to think that now is not the time to concentrate on advocacy and policy change in government with everything clogged up with Brexit, and there may be a seed of truth in that. But to me it is a mistaken attitude – it is always a good time to try to influence, and we should not be put off by the particular policy environment.

Clearly the Brexit process is dominating a lot of the activity of government and senior civil servants, and it is obviously of immense importance to our country, with ramifications for years to come. So many things are going to be affected by the shape of Brexit, I think it is right that civil society is interested in that process, making sure it is democratic, and arguing their case – whether it is environmental standards, consumer protection, labour rights, citizen rights, or some other issue. There are also a number of standalone bills coming through as part of the withdrawal package – for trade, fisheries, agriculture and others. Up until now UK policy in these areas has largely been shaped by our participation in the EU, so the new bills will be possibly the most important legislation for decades. Therefore if your foundation focuses on these issues, now is the time to be funding advocacy. Part of government priority is a smooth transition, but there are choices to be made and directions to be set now.

Parliament is also really important at the moment. We have a minority government with a slender majority through the DUP agreement. That presents an opportunity for foundations and charities to engage with politicians more broadly, for cross-party collaboration, and for approaching backbenchers who have more influence than they might have done under a large majority. There are multiple ways foundations and charities can get involved in parliamentary processes, both formal like select committees and more informal such as all -party parliamentary groups, or through relationships with individual constituency MPs.

Another aspect to the current climate is that the senior civil servants are incredibly stretched – Brexit creates a huge amount of work and complexity – and there have also been reductions in departmental budgets in recent years. That represents a challenge to civil society as civil servants might not have much capacity, but it is also an opportunity. Foundations and charities can work with civil servants, provide thought leadership and expertise, and convene stakeholders. Of course they can do this at any time, but now is a good moment if they have the right resource.

In terms of the Lobbying Act, we as an organisation are not directly affected, because we are not actively communicating with the public or campaigning. But it does potentially affect many of the groups that we fund, and our grantees the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and BOND and others have been active voices for change. People have found ways to manage, as that is the short-term necessity, but there is a clear consensus in civil society that this is not a good piece of law, is not achieving what it set out to achieve, and sooner or later needs reform. Lord Hodgson’s proposals could be a place to start. In the longer term, wider modernisation of electoral law is needed, given the profound changes in the ways that information – including all kinds of campaign information – is created, distributed and shared.

Nick Perks
Trust Secretary
Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust


Other articles in this series

Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Trust for London 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Millfield House Foundation   
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Community Foundation for Northern Ireland 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: The Robertson Trust 

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities