As a new political year gets underway, another season of party conferences comes to an end. The effects of three consecutive weekends away from home and the combination of too many late nights, meetings and caffeine begin to take their toll. But why do charities go to conferences in the first place? And why a charity CEO?
There’s a whole host of reasons for people to attend conferences. Some may want to use it as an opportunity to stake their claim for party leadership, or to apologise, others may choose not to go for fear of becoming a distraction from the key issues at play.
For me, party conferences have a real buzz around them and as a neutral observer, I find it fascinating to watch them unfold; from the excited new party intake soaking up their first conference, to the name-dropping competition amongst old hats and especially the collective swivel of heads as a high-profile minister casually wanders by.
But it’s not just as a casual observer that Scope attends these conferences. These are extremely difficult times for disabled people and their families. They are being hit by a double whammy of seeing their financial support and local services falling away at the same time as the cost of living spirals out of control. And if we want to realise true social change on these issues, we need to be influencing decision makers.
That’s why my colleagues have the season blocked out in my diary as soon as the dates are announced and they are right to do so. The opportunity of new introductions, spontaneous discussions and chance encounters make it a crucial part of my annual calendar, so that I no longer need convincing that it’s worth the time away from the office (and home).
Conferences present a unique opportunity for us to talk to a whole host of influential people, from MPs and Councillors, to journalists and bloggers, to hear their views about what’s important to them but equally to tell them about the crucial changes taking place now that are affecting disabled people and their families.
They provide us with a unique opportunity to test and refine our arguments from all angles and learn what resonates with different audiences. What makes them lean forward, and what sends them resting back in their chairs with their arms crossed? Who are our allies on the issues we feel are important? Who will oppose us and why?
It’s the type of intelligence that you can only obtain when you have numerous conversations, with countless different individuals with different beliefs, backgrounds and interests about the same issue in a short space of time.
Keep us close – our focus this year
This year our approach tied in with the launch of Keep us close, our new campaign about getting better local support for disabled people and their families.
This is a huge issue for families with disabled children. Currently we know many families have to fight long and complicated battles just to find an appropriate school or therapy for their disabled child and in many cases, the support can often only be found far away from their home; this has a huge impact on family life.
Crucially, there is currently a piece of legislation beginning its passage through parliament with the intent to overhaul the support families with disabled children or special educational needs (SEN) receive. Yet despite this being the window to make real changes to this bill that would enable families to be better supported, it’s not really at the top of the political agenda.
From our perspective, it needs to be higher up the agenda. It has the opportunity to make an enormous difference to families’ lives and for us there is quite a simple solution that politicians of all colours can get behind.
And so our conference journey starts and ends with conversations about families; with myself and my colleagues grabbing every available opportunity to talk to existing and new contacts, at all levels, about the problems that families with disabled children face and why it’s so critical that we seize this opportunity to make a genuine difference.
We gather intelligence along the way that allows us to ensure we are ready and can take advantage of every opportunity available to us to make a real and genuine difference to the lives of thousands of families with disabled children.
The power of a charity shop
And finally, my most memorable moment during this year’s conference season ironically wasn’t even in the conference but five miles down the road from the Labour conference.
It was the two hours I took out of a packed conference agenda to take Sharon Hodgson, MP and Shadow Minister for Children and Families, to the local Scope charity shop in Eccles so she could meet the mother of a young disabled boy and hear about her everyday experiences and the real challenges her family face getting the right support they need locally.
It was about taking time out to talk to our shop volunteers who between them talk to six million customers every year about the issues we want them to get behind and how they play a crucial role in helping us spread the word.
And ultimately it’s about recognising that real social change can equally take place in a charity shop as it can from the platform of a conference hall.