If you work with a group or organisation that has faced pressure to avoid ‘political’ activities, I would love to include you in my research. Interviews will be held in early 2020 so we can include your experiences during the election period. The information below will hopefully answer your key questions but please just drop me a line if you are unsure about anything: debsgrayson [at] protonmail.com
What is a ‘small civil society organisation’?
‘Civil society’ is being used here as a bit of a catchall term for groups and organisations which aren’t part of the state or private businesses (so similar to the ‘voluntary sector’ or ‘third sector’). I’m hoping to speak to a variety of organisations working across different issues, including disability rights, homelessness, poverty, anti-racism and climate change. They might have a range of legal structures, as charities, community interest companies or cooperatives. Since I’m focusing on the restrictions caused by different systems of regulation, I mostly want to speak to groups which are relatively formalised and which are not primarily set up to do political campaigning. So the kinds of groups who might not be relevant would be:
- A community group which has no legal structure and gets small amounts of funding from individuals and local churches, since their work isn’t regulated
- A campaigning group like Sisters Uncut who only take money that doesn’t restrict their ability to campaign (e.g. from personal donations or from funders who encourage political activity)
The kinds of groups who would be relevant would be:
- An organisation who experienced difficulties registering as a charity because their work was seen as too ‘campaigny’
- A Community Interest Company who have had a funder threaten to remove funding if they use ‘political’ language
- A less formalised group who have received money via a parent organisation which is a charity, and have experienced tensions and confusion about whether they’re allowed to criticise the local council
In terms of size, as a ballpark a ‘small’ organisation might have fewer than 4 staff or an annual turnover of less than £100,000 – but precise numbers are less important than how powerful the organisation is. The important thing is to understand how systems of regulation impact groups who aren’t high-profile players who can count on public support if they get criticised by government ministers or investigated by the Charity Commission. So not Oxfam, or the Red Cross, or Unison.
What is the research going to lead to?
There will be three main outcomes from this project:
- a short, accessible report which summarises the different ways that ‘political’ is defined, and presents the stories I’ve heard
- a meeting with funders to present these findings – we will be inviting all the funders who supported the Civil Society Futures inquiry, as well as others who fund political work like Edge Fund, Lush, The Network for Social Change and Fund Action
- a meeting for participants to talk to groups having similar experiences
How much time do you need from me?
The interview will take 30-60 minutes. I can travel to meet you or do it over the phone. Because of the importance of maintaining anonymity, I will check back in with you as I am writing and make sure nothing is made public that could have negative repercussions for you. I am also happy to come and speak to your organisation and share more about what I’m learning if that would be helpful for you. You will be invited to a meeting with other participants to share your experiences but this is entirely optional.
How is this research being funded, and can you pay me?
This research is being supported by a British Academy small grant of £10,000, which funds me part-time for five months. It’s a small budget and at this point I can’t pay for your time, although I can pay for travel if you come to the meeting for participants.
I’m hoping to turn this into a two-year full time project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which would be much more systematic and would also involve bringing people together to think about how to push back against these kinds of restrictions. If I manage to get that properly funded then it would be designed to channel some of those resources back to the organisations involved – this would be one of the things we would discuss at the meeting for participants. Interview material used at this stage would only get used in a later project with your consent.
Who am I?
I am an academic and activist. I did my PhD research as a collaboration with a small interfaith charity, looking at the role of media technologies in their work and also exploring the intersection of race and religion. I spent 2018 working for the Civil Society Futures inquiry doing a set of interviews with groups of the more political end of civil society, which led me to start this project. I’m a member of the editorial collective for Soundings Journal.
Politically, I have been involved in activism and campaigning on a number of different issues for the last decade, including climate change, antifracking, media reform and migrant rights. In 2015 I co-founded a community archiving project called The GLC Story (now resident at May Day Rooms) which tries to engage current Londoners with the radical history of the 1980s Greater London Council. My Twitter gives a general sense of my politics.