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Advocacy is the core of any charity

Written By: - Date published: 5:26 am, May 10th, 2013 - 35 comments
Categories: activism, campaigning, political alternatives, welfare - Tags: ,

An editorial in yesterday’s NZ Herald gave the hard-line conservative and quite stupid view of what a charity should be (and has been). According the anonymous author, charities should and must deal with problems of society without attempting to fix the problem through advocating changes that would fix the problems that they are providing relief for. How else can you interpret the following?

Advocacy is not charity. It might be a selfless unpaid activity undertaken for the greater good as the advocates see it, but it is not serving anybody’s personal material needs.

Yeah right. In your libertarian dreams. It seems to suggest that the only problems that charities should deal with should be limited to the material needs of individual humans.

Charities raise funds to give to the needy or to pay for goods and services for them. When people respond to their appeals, they are entitled to expect that their money will help the needy directly, and that not too much of it will go to the administration of the appeal or the charity. Charities that also indulge in political advocacy put their fund-raising ability at risk.

Huh? This must come as a hell of a shock to the ghost of those who contributed to those charities and non-profit organisations who over the centuries have worked on providing the parks, education, public health initiatives, fire services, public works like sewerage and water systems, preservation of ecologies, the welfare of our associated animals, and even those long-lasting spiritual societies who have provided charitable services of the past few millennia. Many of these services are now provided by taxes and governmental organisations. But in our western systems they were almost invariably started and advocated for by charities.

Sure, some of that was done for the material benefit of individual people. But almost all charitable enterprises of the past were orientated towards structural lacks in society and frequently were not concerned with individuals. But more on that later. Lets establish the position of the editorial.

Advocacy usually involves contentious argument from a clear political position. Charities of course can also be politically contentious – if they appear to be exposing government failure, creating dependence or stigmatising recipients – but they attract a tax rebate because there is general recognition that they meet needs that might otherwise have to be met from public funds.

What a strange view and distorted view of what either charities and politics does in reality. Contrary to the frequently expressed opinion of right-wing nut-jobs, politicians typically lag the general views of society by a decade or more. They don’t tend to lag as much as the overall legal system, especially judges or the police. But all these professions tend towards following the existing consensus  of the wider population rather than leading it.

Charitable organisations usually spring up to provide early relief of an perceived ill of society. They advocate for relief to happen, usually provide it, and advocate for change in the political and legal to redress or to prevent it. Their role in society is to create the “general recognition” of an issue. Of course they frigging well advocate politically or otherwise (is there any difference?)  to bring the issue to the attention of the general population and politicians. They are definitely not the passive pawns that this idiot fantasises about.  If you read back in the history of most charities, there is inevitably a period where even the most currently respected charities were viewed as being dangerous radicals.

The quote describes where charities may eventually may wind up long long after they have done their important work. But it is not how they start… For instance, St John’s ambulance is a relatively recent (by my timesense) charity derived from a much older order. Their history of why they formed is quite clear.

New Zealand in the 1880s wasn’t a good place to have an accident or to get ill suddenly. Even though people were highly susceptible to injury because they were mostly doing manual jobs, medical services were scant.

In April 1885 at a public meeting in St Mary’s Church, Christchurch, Reverend Thomas Flavell and Dr Walter Hacon proposed that the St John Ambulance Association be introduced to the colony. Their initiative led to the rapid establishment of St John throughout New Zealand.

They were part of the general charitable movement in the 19th century that advocated the provision of ambulance and medical services that today we take for granted. They provided the initial services using volunteers and charitable donations and lobbied the people and governments to provide the non-charitable publically funded service that we now take for granted as being part of our infrastructure.

While St Johns may still operate as a charity, these days most of their funding for the basic ambulance services is provided these days by the state. The successful provision of these services by a charity was proved to be of benefit to the population as a whole that we as taxpayers now largely fund it.  After all the ambulance service is part of the reason why I’m able to write this post – their quick service in 2011 got me to the hospital alive.

The charitable contributions given to St Johns largely go to providing and advocating for new services – not those started over a century ago. And they concentrate on providing what society needs not just that of individuals who they see usually only for minutes.

Or look at the provision of the historical services provided by Auckland’s War Memorial Museum. While their governance is no longer a charity, I know that they are supported by charities for the advocacy projects  for the betterment of whole of Auckland.

The museum movement (as anyone who has been around them will testify ) are very strong (ie pretty obsessional) advocates for preserving and curating the knowledge and artifacts of history.  They are quite interested in extracting charitable donations to make that happen and to provide widespread free or near free access to the wider community. But their focus is and was on addressing a need of the broader society rather than providing a individually focused relief.

Contrary to the myopically narrow view of the Herald editorial, if you look around at the cornucopia of services that in our modern society that we currently pay for with our taxes you will usually see something started by a charity.   Invariably you’ll find that they were first proposed, advocated for, and set up as charities using donations and volunteers.

Those charities working in the field continued to advocate both politically and for general acceptance for the more general provision of those services as part of the more general social framework, and usually eventually successful. Charities are the decadal response of societies to problems. They triage problems for society and the political system. Of course they advocate for change…

Quite simply the anonymous writer at the NZ Herald has philosophy of effective and workable charities completely arse about face. There is no point in merely patching the ills and shortfalls of societies if you don’t also try to figure out how to prevent them from happening in the future.

Now I have very little sympathy for the knuckle dragging misogynists at Family First. Nor for the shrill vengeful vindictiveness of the misnamed Sensible Sentencing Trust. I do now have far more respect for current Greenpeace than I had for their antics decades ago. But in all of these organisations they are following the path for most successful charities of the past. They don’t just try to deal with the fallout of a perceived societal ill, they advocate for a change to get rid of the problem. That is their role and about the only reason that people of good will would get involved with them.


But the charities of the model that  the NZ Herald editorial seems to prefer are those who did not try to advocate change. Historically they are those who were supplanted by more effective advocates or who have gone into history as perpetuating the problem that they were “relieving”. The charitable workhouses of the 19th century or the charitable adoption factories “caring” for unmarried mothers in the 20th are well and unfondly remembered examples.

These are the types of charities that society does not need nor does it want to encourage. And yet the rules advocated by both the editorial and the old Charities commission’s rulings would favour these parasitical enterprises over those that prefer to work themselves out of a role (and usually into fixing other problems). My view would be that we definitely do not want the state to forgo tax revenue to support organisations who are not advocating for a change in whatever ill of society, local or overseas, that they are working on. It is a pointless waste of our resources. However one of the hallmarks of a effective charity should be the extent to which it tries to eliminate the issue over which it formed – by lobbying, PR, and political advocacy.

Nor is the task of charities to merely provide for the “needy”, “personal material needs”,  and the similar libertarian obsessions with the individual. Most successful current and past charities have advocated for and provided material and services for the betterment of societies.  From libraries, to parks, to museums, to the protection of the natural environment; the history of successful charities of the past is littered with examples.

It beggars belief that even the strange people who write the anonymous editorials at the Herald should be so ignorant of the history charities that they’d write such a silly opinion. But it does make it clear that to write editorials there that a clear lack of understanding of history coupled with a simple-minded unthinking ideological stupidity.

Perhaps they should also consider writing for Whaleoil…

35 comments on “Advocacy is the core of any charity ”

  1. Paul 1

    A charity that questions the system that created the need for the charity. We don’t want that now, do we New Zealand Herald editor writer?
    The government want us to support charities so it does not do its job. It cut the taxes on the wealthy causing most of the problems.
    The wealthy refuse to pay their fair share of taxes; they want us all to thank them for their generosity in supporting Elizabethan (that’s the first one ) style charity.
    How paternalistic of them.

    • lprent 1.1

      That is essentially what the idiot editorial writer was arguing when it came to “needy” issues. However even those with too much money tend to avoid giving money to ineffective charities for any length of time.

      They like to feel that what they are doing is making a difference. It is hard to do that if you’re just getting hammered for money for the same old same old over and over again. They tend to pour money in if they see progress towards less of a problem. Since that usually involves some kind of advocacy, most wealthy donors who put money into that type of ill usually wind up eventually targeting advocacy charities and non-profits. Chronic systemic problems usually eventually wind up requiring a resource base and coverage far beyond what any charity or group of charities can achieve. Consequently they usually get advocated to the political level.

      But the reality is that most of the wealthier people in society tend towards putting their money towards what are municipal charities, and even then less towards operating costs and more towards new projects.

      Unless they have wealth at the level of small countries (like Bill Gates or the Rockefellers or the Morgans or the Rothschilds) that is more their preference for charity.

      Most of the money for work done on systemic ills for charities comes from much more broad based collections.

      Umm. I’d better get back to bed. Only a few hours to work time.

  2. rosy 2

    Really, really good post. St Johns is a good example too. They must be advocates for improved emergency services and health initiatives otherwise they are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Actually most health charities (and homeless. family violence etc) must have some sort of advocacy role to question government and society otherwise they are, in the end, simply overwhelmed with needs that cannot be met.

    • lprent 2.1

      I find I can only write english well when I get irritated… I think that shows through. 😈

      c++ is a lot easier flow

      • just saying 2.1.1

        Excellent post LPrent.

        I know what you mean. When I get very angry, I often become much clearer and more articulate.

    • Populuxe1 2.2

      Yes, but their primary role isn’t advocacy.

    • ghostrider888 2.3

      St Johns are getting hammered out of shape in the current funding and demand growth environment.

  3. Ad 3

    One of the best little charities I know of is Ponsonby Baptist Church’s Community of Refuge Trust. It stepped in and bought a few of the Council houses that Mayor John Banks sold off, back in the day. The Trusts’ intent initially was to support people coming out of mental institutions. The film The Insatiable Moon is based on this whole thing.

    But several years on they are now one of the largest landowners in the Ponsonby-Freemans Bay area, and they concentrate on low rents for all kinds of people who just need it.

    There’s good strong links to its home church, and to me a nice balance between the religious form of Christianity and the practical.

  4. Descendant Of Sssmith 4

    Wonder then where they see Sanitarium?


  5. karol 5

    This quote from the NZ Herald editorial & cited in Lynn’s pots:

    Advocacy usually involves contentious argument from a clear political position. Charities of course can also be politically contentious – if they appear to be exposing government failure, creating dependence or stigmatising recipients – but they attract a tax rebate because there is general recognition that they meet needs that might otherwise have to be met from public funds.

    My bold.

    This is really the position of our current government, especially Key and Bennett. They won’t to reverse the historical development: the development outlined in the post. The NAct government is cutting services to people and sections of society that are needed: services that have been hard fought for, often by charities. And the government wants volunteers and not-for profit charities to carry out these necessary services. That is, they want services that are required for a stable and economically sound society, to be provided for free or on the cheap, and largely by people doing unpaid work.

    • just saying 5.1

      Exactly Karol.
      I have direct knowledge of this from a couple of things I’m involved in. I wish I could shout my anger from the rooftops because I feel really strongly about it. But like everyone else with direct involvement, I’m gagged from talking publicly about the jigsaw pieces I know most about.

      We really are heading back to the times of Dickens politically.

    • ghostrider888 5.2

      yes karol, that is exactly what this paternalistic tory trash “want”

  6. Descendant Of Sssmith 6

    They also strongly promulgate the notion of deserving poor and undeserving poor – a move away from a welfare approach based on need.

  7. One Anonymous Knucklehead 7

    Family First: what charitable function did they perform? Comforting whining bigots who’ve just seen a gay couple?

    The law is clear: advocacy should not be the primary purpose of a charity.

    • lprent 7.1

      The law is clear yes. Advocacy should not be the primary purpose of a charity that wishes to have tax breaks.

      Time to either get rid of that qualification or to drop the tax breaks.

      What I was pointing out was that every charity should be advocating or they are by definition effectively useless and not doing anything in the long term for the society giving them the tax breaks. Without a advocacy role, then all they do is get in the way of resourcing people and organisations who are actually trying to get rid of the ill.

      The alternative is to have charities farming and even encouraging problems to maintain their existence – like the 19th century workhouse system (and it’s modern equivalent – the modern day prison system in the US)

      That was rather the point of my post.

      • Populuxe1 7.1.1

        Yes, but should their role be exclusively advocacy, it’s hard to see that they are anything more than tax-funded lobbyists.

        • lprent

          That they are (I assume you’re looking at Family Fist, SST, and greenpeace as examples).

          But distinguishing between “charities” based on function gets into the usual issues of what you’re trying to achieve. Most charities have quite different phases of activity throughout their lives.

          For instance if you used the criteria that the editorial used of requiring direct benefits to individuals then you’d have excluded many of the most important charities in the west from the 19th and 20th centuries. Fire, ambulance, and medical services come to mind. Similarly the advocacy groups that caused national and local parks. Groups pushing for public health initiatives like sewerage and water….. etc etc

          When they started up and often for quite a few years afterward many of the charities that kicked those off didn’t provide anything more than a advocacy – trying to get the damn thing off the ground. Some would have provided support and services, but often only for long enough to get them into the public mind as being useful.

          I’m afraid that in my opinion trying to get too prescriptive about what is and is not a charity is as likely to cause harm to the eventual outcomes as it does any good.

          It is on the same order of inefficiency as spending lots of time and effort hammering the small minority of beneficiaries who abuse those systems while providing less effective assistance to the majority.

          The reality is that with charities it is simpler and more effective to assume and indeed to require that a large part of any effective charity is to advocate change (because the “farming” examples of past “charities” who did not are truly horrendous) or to eliminate the tax breaks altogether to ensure that non-advocating “charities” do not have unfair advantages over effective charities trying to fix the problems.

      • One Anonymous Knucklehead 7.1.2

        And again, the law is clear that this is a legitimate ancillary function. Something The Herald‘s anonymous advocate appears to have overlooked.

        • lprent

          They sure did. Why do you think that I got so irritated.

          You might have gathered that in my view advocacy should be a required function of a charity. Holding a bandaid over a surgical problem is worse than useless. It is usually dangerous.

          • ghostrider888

            compassionate analysis Lynn; Public Health initiatives are competing for dwindling funds. I am very discerning about the “overheads” and expenditure on “marketing” displayed by the organizations I choose to support.

            Furthermore, I am constantly perplexed by the necessary demonstrations of physical endurance etc decided on by fundraisers, like marathons with the associated
            sponsorship; if the need is apparent, why do people not just give the funds, rather than celebrate the achievements of the fundraiser /s?

          • One Anonymous Knucklehead

            Advocacy is an inevitable consequence of charity, so I’m not sure that it should be required, but I get your point.

            It cannot be the only function however; if it were all lobby groups and political parties would qualify.

    • Populuxe1 7.2

      One can only hope that the Sensible Sentencing Trust will be next.

  8. geoff 8

    This trend among publications to have anonymous editorials seems to be just another way to sneak in more right-wing rhetoric. The Listener has been doing it for a while, they’ve shifted significantly to the right in the last 10 years compared to how they used to be.

  9. Marty 9

    Stop hiding behind that programming keyboard and write some more. This is good stuff.

  10. shorts 10

    if we had a proper govt and system we’d have no need for charities – the state would provide and assist all its citizens, as it should do

  11. marsman 11

    I wonder whether Business NZ is registered as a charity. Doug Myers claimed some time ago that the Business Round Table was not a political lobby, he now runs a ‘non-profit’ advisory company for oil companies to get what they want out of Governments. These are the people that shape NAct’s nasty policies which in the usual neoliberal double speak scammery don’t apply to themselves.

  12. Binders full of women 12

    Can we agree that FF, Forest & Bird, SST, and Greenpeace are either all charities or none of them are charities?

    • RedBaronCV 12.1

      I see differences between the groups above. All have an advocacy role but Greenpeace at least tries to shoo whales out of harm’s way and I’m guessing that F & B also do at least some on the ground stuff.
      On the other hand FF doesn’t offer to come around and beat your kid for you – ugh – and SST doesn’t offer to house people on a prison island they own, they are lobby groups pure and simple.

      Maybe FF and SST should have to declare funding sources especially overseas ones.

      Still charities do need to lobby and there is a sliding line between on the ground services and lobbying so maybe they get so many free years registered as a charity even if they do 90% lobbying and after that they are only a charity if lobbying is not their predominant or only activity. The court’s should be able to come up with a few tests for where the line falls.

    • One Anonymous Knucklehead 12.2

      Binders full of women, no, we can’t. You’d have to introduce a supporting argument or two. I suggest you visit their respective websites and look for evidence that would falsify your claim if I were you. It’ll be quicker.

  13. Huginn 13

    But what about the SPCA?????!!!!!!!

    Could Herald’s editorialists

    Please think of the kittens

  14. Huginn 14

    Sorry about the dud link.
    Here’s another one:


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