The Third Sector’s up in arms today after the new Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, said that he thought charities should ‘stick to their knitting’. The response isn’t that surprising. Charities have been under fire from MPs like Charlie Elphicke, thinktanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Daily Mail, all of which have argued that charities should be seen and not heard. The new Lobbying Act has also raised concerns among non-profits about the extent to which they can speak out on behalf of the people whom they serve. So yes, the sector’s a little sensitive.
The charitable sector often seems to try to live out the much-quoted words of the late Hélder Câmara, a Catholic Archbishop in Brazil, who said:
When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.
If you look at the Civil Society website, you’ll find that Mr Newmark is called many things, and ‘saint’ and ‘communist’ aren’t among them…
But let’s look at what Newmark actually said. In one way he is not guilty of anything more than resorting to cliché. He didn’t say, as many have understood it, that charities should stick to ‘knitting’, he said they should stick to ‘their knitting’. That’s actually jargon for keeping your business model clear and simple. Poor Newmark was at Harvard when Peters and Waterman published their book In Search of Excellence – a not-very-readable (and I’ve read plenty of business books in my time) study which was hugely influential in the 1980s and 1990s, and which introduced the term to a generation of masters of the universe (not E L James but Tom Wolfe, in another 1980s cliché). If only he’d talked about blue ocean strategy or nudge theory: we’d all have known where we were!
ACEVO chief Sir Stephen Bubb has come to the minister’s defence, arguing that Newmark does understand that charities should lobby and campaign. For many charities, after all, lobbying and campaigning is as much the knitting as providing front line services.
Which makes it surprising that Newmark has tweeted a link to the Guido Fawkes site, making it seem that he’s in favour of their editorial line (in a nutshell: charities should shut up because lobbying should be done only by private enterprise).
But it’s a great reminder to us all: how buzzwords and jargon from one part of society can go down so badly when misunderstood by another part.