From the outset there was a strong sense that the wider economic, social and political context made advocacy work more challenging for community and voluntary organisations. This was specifically linked to:
- The effects of the ongoing economic recession – including a more challenging funding environment and diminished prospects for positive change.
- The increasingly complex nature of poverty and social exclusion caused by the impact of unemployment or poorly paid employment, lack of opportunities and cuts to services and supports for people on low incomes, unemployed, dependent on welfare and those in debt.
- A level of hostility at government level to the equality agenda – and to dissent, more generally (a number of community and voluntary organisations reported actual/threatened funding cuts as a direct result of their advocacy work).
- With the demise of social partnership, increasingly limited ‘space’ for civil society to engage in policy making discussions.
- Recession linked to compassion fatigue in media and the general public leading to a fall in the number of donations to charities in general (with some exceptions), while there was an increase in the individual amounts being donated.
- Increased competition for resources – within the community and voluntary sector and between community and voluntary sector and other sectors.
- Questions at government level and among the media and general public as to whether there are too many community and voluntary organisations.
- The current economic focus of policy-making structures.
- Challenges in relation to the legitimacy of the community and voluntary sector and a concern about where organisations in the sector get and sustain their mandate.
It is clear that the community voluntary sector needs to be both efficient and innovative in terms of maximising its resources and opportunities to engage with policy-makers combining both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ strategies.
A lack of understanding of the sector’s social justice advocacy work
A key issue was that neither the community and voluntary sector or its advocacy work was well understood, a fact not helped by the diverse and disparate nature of the sector. Interestingly our opinion polls found a level of positivity and openness towards the sector with 57% believing that greater involvement of charities and community groups in national policy making would help ensure that vulnerable people are better cared for, with 46% wanting the sector to be more influential in relation to law and policy. It should also be noted that there were significant differences in sympathy levels for various groups. For example there was a lot of support for work related to mental health issues, homelessness and less support for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.
In light of this the challenge for the sector is to find ways to promote a better and wider understanding of its role and work amongst the general public and media in order to capitalise on the positivity that exists towards it. It also needs to find and use new and enhanced ways (e.g. better use of social media/use of plain jargon free language) to engage with members of the public in order to get more people involved in campaigning for social justice.
Key practice challenges for the sector
Our work documented and identified the following challenges for the community & voluntary sector face when doing social justice advocacy work:
Lack of dedicated resources & funding constraints
The limited nature of dedicated resources available to the sector to undertake social justice advocacy work is a huge challenge, particularly as policy-makers look to social justice advocacy organisations to provide/collect hard evidence and relevant contemporary data in order to support the cases they make.
The fact that many organisations receive state support for at least part of their work can make it more challenging and in some instances can impose constraints (perceived and actual) and prohibitions on criticising public policy. The 2014 Harvey Funding Study identified the two key instruments that allow the state to inhibit advocacy. The first is the informal ‘services-only’ paradigm, whereby organisations may only use state funding for providing ‘services’. The second is clause §2.8 of the Service Level Agreement (SLA) of the Health Service Executive which prohibits the use of funding for any attempt at persuasion in matters of policy or practice. This challenge of being both an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ capable of robust critique is a significant one for many community and voluntary organisations.
Making time to get to know and build trust and relationships with policy-makers and influencers was recognised as critical (by the community and voluntary sector, the media and trade unions) in terms of raising credibility of the individual, the organisation and their agenda for change. This should be done in an energetic and constructive way with follow up as necessary. This relationship building is particularly challenging in the current climate where:
- Organisations act as independent voices critiquing the system.
- There are increasing constraints on the public sector.
- Reduced opportunities to meet and build relations.
Legitimacy, representativeness and credibility
In order to be taken seriously particularly by policy-makers, community and voluntary sector organisations involved in social justice advocacy need a clear mandate and connection to the group(s) they represent.
Ideally this needs to be an ongoing and two-way process where the organisation’s agenda is set by those representative group(s), and the organisation in turn relays information back to its support base. Participation is indeed a key requirement of social justice advocacy to be fully effective it needs to be substantially resourced and not tokenistic.
Organisations need to recognise that a lack of participation of those experiencing the issues they represent can seriously undermine their work. Getting individuals and groups who are excluded to become involved can also be a very significant challenge. Encouraging the emergence of new spokespeople to represent the views of an organisation can be one way of doing this.
The recent media coverage of the controversy over the remuneration packages provided to senior staff in REHAB and CRC (2014) also raises challenges in terms of the credibility the sector and calls for greater transparency in relation to pay levels and funding sources.
Policy and decision making processes at all levels are complex. Those seeking to engage and work with that system clearly need to understand it. There was a view that community and voluntary sector organisations are not always clear about how the system works. So the challenge for the sector is to build its capacity and that of individual organisation and coalitions to better understand and ultimately engage with the system and build relationships with those working in it, with considerable scope for the application and use of international and EU tools.
In addition building a strong evidence base to support the direction of the changes sought is very useful in this context. This can be done by undertaking focused research (which gets to the heart of the issues) providing the evidence necessary to make the case for key policy changes.
Organisations engaged in social justice advocacy work need to find ways to challenge the view that they are motivated more by an interest in sustaining the organisation or their jobs, rather than the interests of the groups they represent. One way to do this is by engaging in more honest reflection, which openly acknowledges the tension between being funded by the state and engaging in social justice advocacy. The wider sector could also benefit from a greater level of reflection on:
- Competition for resources, access and profile
- The compatibility of frameworks, value bases and approaches used by different organisations
- The challenge of living the values and meeting expectations
- Lack of effectiveness, innovation, creativity and staff turnover as well as salary and status inflation.
Positivity, persistence and monitoring change
The community and voluntary sectors’ social justice advocacy work and some social justice advocates have been described by some commentators as being overly negative and not ambitious enough. Where this is the case the sector needs to find ways to regain its confidence and ambition and transform the challenges into opportunities.
The sector has also been charged with having unrealistic expectations and needs to find ways to:
- Reflect on the extent to which these commentaries are valid
- Where they are valid address them and
- Where they are not valid find ways to challenge these perceptions in order to be taken seriously
Vision, focus (on a small number of key priority areas), planning and persistence are all key attributes for organisations and individuals engaged in social justice advocacy work where change can be slow. Monitoring and evaluation are also important in relation to demonstrating and learning in relation to where change has been/has not been levered. It is also the case that where positive changes have been won these should be recognised and welcomed, even where there is more to be done.
Collaboration and strategic alliances
Where relevant (i.e. there is a shared agenda around a particular topic) there can be a value in organisations (community and voluntary and others) coming together to build formal and informal collaborations and alliances to lend weight to arguments, develop shared compromise solutions and seek positive change in relation key policy objectives. These kinds of alliances are also useful for policy-makers as they make it easier in terms of the number of groups they have to meet to get a view from the ground.
Community and voluntary sector organisations need to be flexible and adopt more innovative approaches to influencing policy both within and outside the system. Organisations also need to be able to respond quickly to unforeseen opportunities.