Help for not for profit and charity trustees

Beware Greeks bearing gifts

charities have to be a little careful when dealing with members of parliament

My Twitter pages and emails lit up a few days ago when our local MP said what a pleasure it was to meet some representatives of the local foodbank. It drew responses along the lines that he should be ashamed not delighted. There is a risk that foodbanks are becoming a permanent fixture of the social fabric and we are in danger of forgetting that a little over a decade ago they were unknown. Now, around 2.5 million have come to rely on them. But the point is the danger charities court when they meet their local MP.

One argument is that you should maintain contacts despite the party they represent and their voting record which may have actually increased the problem you are trying to tackle. A perfectly valid argument. How else are you going get across what you are doing and the problems you are going to tackle they argue? Surely it is better to engage than shout from the side lines? All of which is true enough.

The problem emerges when such meetings are used to claim concern where none in fact exists. After all. expressing pleasure at meeting the food bank people comes close to being patronising. It is also risky for the charity in that they seem to be cosying up to the MP. It is the MP who appears in the local paper, not the charity. We do not know therefore what was said or what messages were given. Did they express alarm at the various government measures which have made matters worse for those at the bottom of the heap? Did they express outrage at the state of the economy such that many using the foodbanks are actually in work? We do not know. The MP does not give any clue as to the concerns that the charity may have expressed.

The additional problem is that often people become deferential when they meet people like MPs. They fulminate and burn in anger when you meet them privately but suddenly, they become mute when they meet the MP. This adds to the risk in my view that the MP has quietly neutralised the concerns because … well nothing much was said because everyone was too polite. It’s been my experience that there is so much thanking going on, sometimes to the point of obsequiousness, that it almost becomes impertinent to say anything direct or which might be seen as critical.

The people on Twitter were primarily cross at our MP and I do not know if any of that displeasure was felt towards the charity which is held in high esteem. But I do think that charities and not-for-profits owe it to the people they help and support to be careful not to be taken in by smooth words and faux concern. Trustees should study the performance, voting and speeches in They Work for You before becoming too cosy with their local MP.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee

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