Charity campaigning: does it help to be an expert?

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Charity campaigning: does it help to be an expert?

Charities can struggle to make themselves heard despite being experts on their issues. This week, we're looking at the reasons why we might not be listened to, and what tools we have to bolster trust with the public.

Ben Roberts

How long do you have to work in your sector before you can call yourself an expert? Do you trust in the 10,000 hour rule? Is it about doing plenty of your own research? Or, do you think of it as hands-on experience in your field? Regardless of your own interpretation, it goes without saying that there are a huge number of experts across the charity sector. The depth of knowledge that many of our leading voices exhibit inspires confidence in the sector’s ability to deliver on what beneficiaries need. But, the great frustration across many of the issues that our sector is tackling is that being an expert doesn’t always mean you can make yourself heard.

With the strong likelihood being that the next general election takes place in the latter half of this year, we’re looking into how charities can make the most of their expert status while campaigning, while avoiding any public cynicism that’s lingered for “so-called experts”.


Is the public still sceptical of experts?

When we asked the public last year whether it was more important to listen to experts or ordinary people when it comes to choosing policy in the UK, there was a small preference to listen to normal people than experts. There’s been an upward trend in trust for experts since 2016, where cynicism was at a high. But the question still remains: what are the optics that have led to this preference? 

Well, we can consider an interesting statistic from our research at the start of last year – when asked about how much they trust someone who runs a well-known charity commenting on policy, 42% of the public said that they would trust their views. This isn’t to say that the rest of the public are distrustful, as a large figure simply weren’t sure about how they feel. But even so, this leave a lot to be desired for our sector.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most trusted expert voices come from scientists and healthcare professionals. One of the main reasons that a working doctor would likely receive more credit from the average member of the public than a WHO spokesperson could be down to the perception of the doctor having boots on the ground in the midst of the issues at hand, with first-hand experience. Naturally, this isn’t always going to produce the best opinions, but it sways the optics of the situation in a way that charities can take advantage of.


This year it will be vital to make yourself heard

At the time of writing this, George Osborne has predicted a general election date of 14 November. As we fast approach the likely date for the election, it’s worth reminding everyone just how adamant we are about the public’s faith in charities to campaign, despite the backlash that’s sometimes seen as a result. In fact, 82% of the public believe in policy that’s backed by experts.

Getting through to MPs can be difficult, however. In a continuation of steady trends from previous years, our latest research shows that as many as 83% of Conservative MPs believe charity to be too political, versus just 8% of Labour. The harsh impact of this is that charities are less likely to be able to make themselves heard with a lot of the MPs who have the power to enact the changes that we need. 

So, how does a charity go about making its expert voice heard without triggering the cynicism of both MPs and the public?


Guiding supporters

Many charities get around the difficulties of being an expert body when campaigning. As many of the charities we’ve worked with in the past 20 years have shown us, one of the most impactful tools they have is the ability to mobilise supporters, and that’s never truer than when it comes to advocacy. Having your supporters reach out on your behalf in letter writing campaigns has always been a reliable means of making yourself heard, and can cut through MPs’ distaste for charity experts’ voices in the political sphere. 

Plus, getting the public onside can be easier when we consider what they respond well to. If their preferred experts are frontline workers and ordinary people, these are the voices you can priorities in your communications in order to best demonstrate that from top-to-bottom, you’re a charity that well earns its expert credentials.

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