Charity sector almost invisible at party conference – but international aid remains priority for Theresa May

The charity sector’s presence on the party conference circuit has waned considerably, leading to questions about charities’ approach to lobbying.

While a small number of charities hosted fringe events and had stands in the expo at both the Labour and Conservative conferences, the number of discussions focused on the importance of civil society within the national picture had declined on previous years, indicating that the sector has much work to do to persuade politicians of the value they offer.

It is a markedly different picture to 2010 when the Big Society meant charities were at the heart of the government’s strategy and vision for the country.

“This is less that the sector has fallen out of favour – although the Conservative remain suspicious of the sector as either being anti market do-gooders or big charity fat cats – and more than they don’t see us as relevant to the current debates or an issue that is likely to swap votes. That has to worry us”, Dan Corry, chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital told Charity Times.

“A recognition of the importance of civil society – going beyond some nods to things like the National Citizenship Service and volunteering – would have been a key signal from politicians that they were thinking of this area and would have given the sector some confidence that it had not been completely forgotten,” he added.

Karl Wilding, director of volunteering at the NCVO, suggested that part of the reason for this is because charities do not “fit the narrative”. “In some respects, political parties have shifted to their flanks and are happy that there is clear blue water between them. We don’t quite fit the narrative as we’re in the centre, focusing on what works”.

He questioned the value of party conferences and suggested that if charities really want to have influence, they need to demonstrate the impact they make on key social issues.

“The extent to which we influence anyone there is a question for some of us. I’m less interested in seeing a debate about charities or volunteering per se; I would prefer more events to involve a charity or volunteering perspective on the issues they are considering – we seem to be a bit back to state vs private sector in the current culture wars,” Wilding said.

He added: “I don’t think conference was interested in us because of who we are, they are interested in how we can solve the burning issues of our time. Charities need to tell good stories and be ready with evidence of how what we do makes a difference.”

While the charity sector as a whole may have received limited attention, overseas aid was a key focus. Conservative party commitment to funding international development was reiterated at various events across the conference programme, including the Prime Minister’s closing speech.

Theresa May said: “We will continue to meet the international aid target, spending 0.7% of our GNI on international development. That’s not just because it’s good for Britain, but because it is the right thing to do. Yes, charity may begin at home, but our compassion is not limited to those who carry the same passport.”

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