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Column: Collaboration, though not easy, is essential for charities to make a difference

It’s very rare that a social justice ‘win’ can be claimed by any one group – but when civil society organisations come together to fight for a cause, the results are inspiring, writes Anna Visser on National Giving Week.

Anna Visser

ALL TOO OFTEN we hear the statement ‘there are too many charities and non-profits in Ireland’. The suggestion being that a vibrant and diverse civil society sector is a bad thing and needs explanation. Evidence of this perspective can be seen in some of the comments online spaces when these organisations are reported on.

This is not just an Irish phenomenon, but reflected in debates across the world. Avoiding duplication is one thing, but we are in danger of losing the diversity which is critical to any vibrant civil society. These organisations fulfill many functions, whether it’s providing services, bringing about social cohesion and a sense of community, or advocating for policy change. It is in the diversity of this sector that we find innovation, experimentation and inclusion.

Over the past two years The Advocacy Initiative has been exploring and responding to the challenges facing organisations which seek to achieve social change by influencing government policy. Advocacy is not an uncontested role, some would argue that politicians represent their constituents and that these non-profit ‘lobbyists’ are bad from democracy.

However, that’s not what most of us think. A public opinion poll we conducted in 2013 demonstrated that 72 per cent of us agree that it is important for charities and non-profits to campaign and lobby government. This demonstrates that people understand the need to address the structures that cause social problems, and not just treat the symptoms. Advocacy and working in collaboration is about addressing those causes.

Collaborative advocacy takes many forms

We have also been asking how social justice advocates can do better, can achieve more for those who experience poverty and exclusion in Ireland. Collaboration is seen as critical both in the eyes of advocates themselves, but also in the view of policy-makers. We asked politicians what undermines advocacy, and they clearly said: the absence of collaboration. Too many groups all trying to do the same thing “that can very easily be dismissed as noise”.

Collaborative advocacy takes many forms. Advocates work together in networks, platforms, alliances, joint campaigns, or once-off activities. It can range from very informal information sharing to formalised structures to once-off reactive campaigns aimed at resisting a suggested policy change. Collaboration and partnerships can be local, national, international or a combination and limited to community and voluntary sector actors or involve a variety of stakeholder including trade unions, media, think tanks, academic institution, funders, state bodies and government departments. But collaboration is not necessarily easy, nor is it always in the best interests of those on whose behalf you are working.

The risks of collaboration are often hidden, because it can be difficult to talk about the drawbacks, especially if you are trying to maintain relationships or don’t want to be seen as contrary or resisting cooperation. But collaboration is not the right route if it:

  • Compromises your position, so that the needs of those you are working on behalf of are not served;
  • Narrows the focus of action to a particular sub-sector which can damage broader agendas or create competition between different groups. An effective collaborative campaign must be compatible with wider values of social justice, and not undermine the prospects of others;
  • Is not based on enough trust to make it genuine. A perception that any one group is using a collaborative campaign to further their own individual interests undermines cooperation rather than encourages it.

Collaboration is a tactic; it should not become a strategy.

However collaboration has also been responsible for some of the most inspiring civil society achievements both here and internationally. Its potential is fantastic. In recent years collaborative strategies have resulted in substantive changes to law and its implementation, new policy departures, game changing legal cases, constitutional change, growing public awareness, support and commitment to particular issues, and successful resistance to damaging budget cuts.

What happens when civil society organisations come together

Very rarely can a social justice ‘win’ be claimed by any one group, but when civil society organisations come together to fight for a cause, the results are inspiring. In recent months we have seen the announcement of the referendum on marriage equality, the achievement of a redress scheme for those who were in the Magdalene laundries, the criminalisation of forced labour in Ireland, as well as many other small wins which, despite the crisis facing this country, will make a difference in people’s lives every day.

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In order to achieve this, collaboration needs a diversity of actors, both within the charities and non-profit sector, as well as across all other sectors of society. No-one would suggest that the solution to our economic problems is fewer businesses. So why is there a suggestion that we can solve our intransigent social problems with fewer charities or non-profit organisations? Granted, not every initiative will thrive and prosper, but without a multitude of perspectives and innovations we will all be worse off.

On 20th November The Advocacy Initiative will be hosting a forum inviting charities and non-profits to learn from experiences of collaboration in Ireland and globally; the good, the bad and the ugly. We need to be excited about potential for collaboration, but not blind to its risks. For more information or to register go to: www.advocacyinitiative.ie

Anna Visser is Director of The Advocacy Initiative and was previously Director of the European Anti-Poverty Network Ireland. She has over ten years experience in policy and development roles in the statutory and NGO sectors at regional, national and international levels in the area of anti-racism, equality, human rights and conflict resolution.

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Anna Visser

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