Last month I attended the excellent People Power conference organised by SMK (the Sheila McKechnie Foundation) in association with the Good Agency. Throughout the day I was struck by a recurring theme: what is the appropriate balance for charities to strike between working for or on behalf of the people they represent, as opposed to working with people when it comes to campaigning? The language may seem unimportant but the difference between these ways of working is significant. Are too many charities using old fashioned, slightly paternalistic models of campaigning on behalf of people? Are some charities slow to catch up with the apparent rise in grassroots campaigning?

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the panel discussion ‘Do charities still speak truth to power?’ My own answer would be yes, of course they do. However, I think there is an interesting and overdue cultural shift starting to happen in corners of the voluntary sector. The panel debate and a workshop run by staff from Mind, the mental health charity, entitled ‘Are national charities having an identity crisis?’ picked up on this shift.

Some charities are adapting influencing methods in response to what some see as a rise in DIY campaigns, that is, campaigns led from the grassroots by people who are directly affected by an issue and are not paid to be professional campaigners. I’m not convinced there has been a huge increase in this type of campaigning – I suspect these volunteer-led campaigns are simply more visible and far-reaching than they used to be because of the prevalence of social media and other web-based tools. Whether volunteer-led campaigns are on the rise or not, some charities are recognising that they need to do more to work with the people they represent, and empower them to campaign for themselves. The days when charities campaign primarily for or on behalf of people rather than with them ought to be numbered and I hope the increased prevalence or visibility of grassroots action hastens change.

I was excited to hear Pragna Patel talk at the conference about her decades of experience campaigning with Southall Black Sisters, an excellent example of a community organisation that has managed to strike a balance between employing professional staff and empowering people affected by gender-related violence to campaign. Amongst the many pearls of wisdom Patel offered was the observation that involving service users in campaigning is important because without them an organisation (and its paid staff) lacks integrity and legitimacy. It is also impossible to campaign effectively without drawing on the insight of the people you work with. How do you know what the crucial issues that need to be addressed are if you don’t have a close connection with the group of people you seek to represent?

Patel acknowledged paid staff have a role in speaking truth to power. She said there is sometimes a danger that service users are more easily captured by Government because they may be less savvy than professionals are when it comes to recognising the tricks Government can use to co-opt campaigners to their own agenda (of course, professional campaigners are at risk of co-option too). Patel’s comment made me think about the current situation whereby some Government Departments are less willing to talk to charities than the previous administration was. Ministers and civil servants say they are more interested in seeking out small service-user led organisations to engage in dialogue about policies such as welfare reform. Some charities, especially the larger ones, are finding themselves marginalised.

Of course, it may suit some in Government to speak directly to service users and bypass large charities. However, to me, this is a challenge to charities to improve the way they work with people so that service users and other people affected by policies can speak truth to power directly rather than relying on a charity as a mouthpiece. Patel said organisations which cannot find ways of involving service users in a meaningful way are actually disempowering people. The goal, she said, should be to move away from a situation in which service users are an object of social policy towards being citizens with the power to shape their own lives. In my view, some charities need to do more to put people front and centre of their campaigning work.

Amy Whitelock and her colleagues from Mind made the important point at the conference that some people cannot campaign for themselves (perhaps they are too ill, for example) and look to charities to represent them and campaign on their behalf. That is completely legitimate. My argument is not for charities to completely hand over the reins of campaigning to people with direct experience of the issues. In my view, campaigning nirvana is when the professionals know they are campaigning on issues of importance to the people they represent because those people are involved in setting campaign priorities and strategy as well as taking action; and those who want to campaign autonomously at local level are enabled to do so.

It seems to me that charities need to strike a better balance between speaking truth to power on behalf of the people they claim to represent and empowering people to campaign for themselves when that is what they want and are able to do. Some charities, like Mind, are doing great work to figure out how they can do this. Others, like Leonard Cheshire Disability, have been doing it for years. Some others need to take a look at the way they work and figure out how they can adapt their methods so they are more often working with people, not for them. That means linking with informal structures and grassroots networks already in existence and helping new ones to thrive. It means giving people the skills to campaign and then trusting them to get on with it and do a good job. Charities need to get better at letting go of the message and feeling comfortable about putting people in control.