Why we ruffle feathers

Mike Clarke explains why campaigning to protect the common good has always been at the heart of the RSPB’s activities.

WHAT WOULD YOU think about a charity that primarily devotes its resources to legislative campaigning, enforcement and prosecutions?

In recent times, we have seen an increasing number of public decision-makers and commentators in this country describe such charitable activity as “too political”, and suggesting that some charities have “lost their way” and that they “should stick to their knitting”.

Campaigning from the start

So it is instructive to note that these were precisely the principal charitable activities of the RSPB, following its formation in 1889 – and long before the charity established its network of nature reserves, its advisory services to land managers, and its Centre for Conservation Science.

Indeed, as well as gaining our Royal Charter, in its first 40 years of life the RSPB mounted 15 Parliamentary campaigns, securing eight pieces of legislation in international trade, wildlife, and pollution control.

We stimulated a joint Parliamentary debate, an Anglo- American governmental summit, and a League of Nations conference on oil pollution. The charity took the first-ever prosecution for an oil spill, and its international collaboration has a legacy today in the USA in some of the legislation under which BP was prosecuted for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Not surprisingly, the RSPB’s early international campaigning work has continued to grow because birds and other migratory wildlife do not respect political borders. The charity is now the UK partner of BirdLife International, the largest global  partnership of civil society organisations for nature conservation. With a presence in 120 countries, BirdLife International is made up of local partners that are founded on open governance and active participation.

Tightening regulation

A growing number of our BirdLife partners globally share the experience of tightening regulation, and political rhetoric which is seeking to close down the public-policy space in which civil society operates.

Last year in Kenya, for instance, it took a major domestic and international outcry to dissuade the government from introducing highly restrictive controls on voluntary organisations, like Nature Kenya, through amendments to the Public Benefits Organisation Act 2013.

Similarly, in recent months the Australian government has launched a Parliamentary inquiry into the tax-deductibility status of charities on the Register of Environmental Organisations.
This follows political reaction in some quarters against campaigns to protect the Great Barrier Reef and to stop new opencast coal mining projects.

Why are we seeing campaigning charities come under pressure, across a range of cultures and political systems?

Some of the explanation may well lie in the accelerating rate of change that we are seeing everywhere, and the globalisation of many issues – which means that politicians are struggling to respond fast enough.

In the UK, we have seen over recent years what I would describe as ‘retail’ party politics. The development and implementation of long-term, non-partisan policies does not meet the political cycle, and senior politicians increasingly tend to put issues into what one former Cabinet minister has described as the ‘too-difficult box’.

Inability of governments

There is a growing sense in civil society – and indeed in much of the corporate sector – of the inability of governments to develop and maintain programmes driven by the long-term public interest. The expectation is that the political system will follow change, not lead the response.

So, in my view, there is a pressing need for other theories of change – we can’t merely rely on policy-driven change delivered by the State.

Most charities are built on a desire to make things better for the common good, and it is entirely rational and cost-effective for charities to seek to tackle the causes of public harm, as well as providing direct relief from that harm.

Campaigning by charitable organisations really began to take off during the 19th century, with their roots in the great social debates of the age – such as emancipation, universal suffrage and the anti-enclosure movement Leaders of social change supported the formation of numerous campaigning charities, for example William Wilberforce (RSPCA), Octavia Hill (National Trust), and Frances Power Cobbe (RSPB). The work of many charities founded then led to new social norms, which we now regard as basic requirements for a civilised society.

The drivers of change affectingthe public good have progressively globalised since then, and charities have responded by seeking solutions to public harm at a higher, more systemic level, as well as practical solutions that can be applied at scale.

The RSPB recognises that birds and the rest of nature are interconnected – they are all part of the web of life, or ‘biodiversity’.

The main causes of biodiversity decline in the British Isles, the European continent and worldwide are habitat loss and degradation, invasive non-native species, pollution (especially greenhouse gases) and over-exploitation – all driven by human activity. Since the middle of the 20th century, it has become starkly clear that the main trends in global environmental change are directly correlated to human socio- economic trends.

These represent a set of complex social problems which are too big to be solved by individual people and organisations, and require collaboration at a higher level for the long-term common good.

We are entering a period of global disruptive change. It is in such periods that civil society has a crucial leadership role in helping to create the values, beliefs and social norms that create behaviour changes – not just among the public, but also in the actions of business and in the decisions of governments.

Intense debate

It is also in such periods of change that the respective roles of charities and government become subject to intense debate. One of the foundation blocks of charity law, the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses, was born out of the turmoil of the Tudor period and the discussion about the respective roles of the State and the church.

The late 19th century was, as described earlier, a vibrant time for civil society, and the early 21st century is another.

In future, charities will need to have a more strategic and systematic approach to how they collaborate with others, and seek to generate collective impact for common cause.

They will also need to value more highly the critical role they have in generating the evidence base that informs the long-term public good and empowers citizens; and they will need to redefine their relationships with supporters – not just seeking financial help, but also connecting donors much more directly with the organisation’s charitable mission and impact.

And, crucially, charities must continue to make the case for their legitimate campaigning role in an open and democratic society.


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