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The network of non-government organisations that pursues the interests of children and families does a good job in the Kiwi way.

I have worked in child and family organisations for thirty-six years. Longer, if you count my childhood selling raffle tickets and helping with catering on stock sale days to raise money for Plunket, WDFF and other local groups of which my mother was a busy member. I believe in the New Zealand habit of bringing a group of people together, forming a committee, giving it a name, then raising funds and gaining influence to achieve a particular purpose.

It has been part of the do-it-yourself Kiwi way. The alternative is to seek out the patronage of an established organisation to achieve the same end. I’ve been down both paths. Together with others I’ve set up a number of organisations over the years and have joined a few established ones. Some groups which I have been in at the beginning have prospered. Others have not. All have evolved along lines that were not foreseen.

The great benefit of the small dedicated group is the focused enthusiasm of the people who brought it into being. The drawback is the difficulty in achieving the reach needed to gain funding and influence. Established organisations that survive and continue to bring about change find ways of combining the enthusiasm, freedom and creativity of volunteers with the financial and administrative heft and connections of a longer-standing structure.

Plunket is a good example. Its heart and soul are local committees of volunteers in close contact with the mothers, fathers and babies they serve. Its senior volunteers meet at regional and national levels to make plans to advocate for those same mothers, fathers and babies.[1] Plunket has the standing in New Zealand communities to enable it to gain funding for the services it provides and the reach to influence public policy. The Auckland historian, Lynda Bryder has told the story in her 2003 book [2] of how its methods of advocacy have changed over the hundred and more years of its existence. It is a fascinating account that reflects the changing nature of New Zealand society.

Plunket is perhaps the largest New Zealand child and family non-government organisation by membership but it is certainly not the only one. There are many groups which aim to improve the lot of children and families one way or another. When UNICEF New Zealand prepared a briefing paper to give a combined view on the government’s 2011 Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, more than eighty organisations contributed. 

People sometimes ask why there isn’t a single voice lobbying on behalf of children. Surely it would be more effective. It is a good question. The short answer is that it would be good to have such a voice and indeed one has been created in recent times in the form of Every Child Counts in 2004 and for this election year, Tick for Kids. Both have arisen from discussions among the many organisations that help children and families. They do not replace the work done by these groups in the multiple areas of children’s welfare, safety, education, health, care, disability, literacy, legal representation and so on, but amplify their voices with a view of children as a whole, their status and place in New Zealand society.   

Advocacy has not always been accepted as legitimate. It has been disparaged by some scientists for getting carried away and ignoring science-based evidence.[3] It is true that advocacy without science can support worthless programmes but science without advocacy can mean useful programmes remain obscure and ineffective. Both are needed. First comes the idea. Research tests it. Advocacy sees it implemented.[4] 

Another conundrum facing would-be advocates is whether or not their main purpose constitutes political activity in the eyes of the Charities Service (formerly Charities Commission). If it does, their organisation cannot be registered as a charity under the Charities Act 2005. To be registrable as a charity and therefore tax exempt, an organisation must meet the definition of ‘charitable purpose’ which is fundamentally “relieving poverty, or advancing education or religion, or other things beneficial to the community”. Political advocacy is permitted as an ‘ancillary activity’.

This situation has created difficulty for many children-and-family-focused NGOs in that advancement of the interests of children and families and other sectors of the population is likely to require change in understanding and attitude which by definition necessitates advocacy. A Supreme Court decision of 6 August, 2014 appears to have recognised this anomaly. The judgement allowed an appeal against the Court of Appeal’s determination that a political purpose cannot be a charitable purpose.

The network of non-government organisations that pursues the interests of children and families does a good job in the Kiwi way. Its multiple voices are heard in relation to the many specific needs, rights and interests of children and families and its united voice on children’s status is beginning to be better heard.


[1] Sullivan, J. (2007) I was a Plunket baby: 100 years of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society. Auckland: Random House.

[2] Bryder, L. (2003) A voice for mothers: The Plunket Society and infant welfare 1907-2000. Auckland: Auckland University press.

[3] Chaffin, M. (2004) Is it time to rethink Healthy Start/Healthy Families? Child Abuse and Neglect, 28(6), 589-595.

[4] Hassall, I. (2005) Response to Chaffin (2004) Child Abuse and Neglect, 29, 235.

Effective advocacy

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