Lunch with... Simon Francis

Written by Francis Ingham on 1 December 2016 in Features

PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with Campaign Collective founder and PRCA not-for-profit group co-chair Simon Francis at Shepherd’s restaurant.

The week after I interviewed Mario Ambrosi over lunch, I happened to meet up with the other co-chairman of the PRCA not-for-profit group, Simon Francis.

Typical! You wait a year for one charity comms supremo to come along, and then you get two in a row...

I asked Simon to tell me something about his current venture, Campaign Collective.

"We’re a new organisation. We’re one of the only social enterprises in the PR industry, so the majority of our profits go to our social purpose, which is helping micro-charities gain access to communications advice," he says.

"We still class ourselves as an agency - we take that very seriously. We have very high standards of client service."

So what’s the big difference? 

"Charities often find themselves priced out of accessing communications advice, and we’re there for them really. Since we launched last February, there’s been a lot of people who have come to us saying “We didn’t think we would ever be able to afford professional advice”. So we are helping organisations access services who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do so."

Which seems beneficial all round. I turn to the sector. How’s it faring at the moment I wonder? And Simon is remarkably direct and to-the-point.  

"The charity sector has been in a state of turmoil for the last two years, but we’re starting to come out of that now. There’s still a lot of work to do rebuilding trust, and that’s one of the things obviously that we’re focusing on with the PRCA group which I co-chair. We’ve got the House of Lords review into charities, and we’re using that as an opportunity to say, “What relationship do we want between government and charities? What sort of reputation do we want with the public, and how do we go about improving that?"

Simon follows that up by making an analogy between charities and schools. One that’s often missed, it’s fair to say.

"If one school doesn’t do very well in its tests, the whole school system isn’t shut down. Yet, a couple of charities were found to have some pretty ropey practices when it came to fundraising, and the whole sector has been tarnished. Politicians are certainly to blame for some of that when they turn around and refer to “Charities…” as all encompassing. They would never say, as a result of one school failure, “All schools are like this”, and yet I think that’s the problem. We need to separate out the cases where there have been practices that are not great."

Simon’s passion for his sector is obvious and strong, but he sees progress coming out of this period of difficulty.

"I think we’re in a position where we can move on from that. The threats from government in terms of legislation don’t seem to be coming about, although we’re slightly concerned that the government appears not to be moving very fast on the Hodgson Review recommendations into the election campaigning regulations. We’d like to see more progress being made on that and obviously we’re remaining vigilant to any attempts to re-introduce the proposed gagging clause into government contracts So there are still threats, but we’ve certainly moved on."

Simon’s already told me that at least a dominant party in power means some stability of policy, but I wonder if he thinks the current government is more or less well-disposed to the charitable sector than its coalition partner had been?

"It’s far too early to say whether they’re going to be more or less friendly. Let’s see what they do with the Hodgson Review. Let’s see what they do in terms of keeping to their word of not bringing back the gagging clause. If they stick to those things, I think they could be seen as more friendly."

Speaking of regulation, I ask Simon a rather direct question -are charities averse to being on lobbying registers? Because in our experience, some certainly are.  

He tells me: "Sometimes charities might not think they’re actually lobbying. They probably see their work as just campaigning. I think that’s not helped them by the definitions that lobbyists sometimes give themselves, and by the fact the vast majority of lobbyists work for private organisations. And if you look at the big lobbying agencies, they don’t have that many charitable clients on their books."

Shepherd’s proprietor Lionel Zetter has joined us by now, and his brows are furrowing. But while he might disagree with Simon’s assertion, nobody can disagree with his commitment to his sector, and his very heartening and very clear faith in what he and it does for the country. 

Before we eat, I have one other issue to address. The use of unpaid interns by charities.

Simon says: "There should be a clear distinction in the charitable sector between interns and volunteers. You would never want to prevent charities from bringing volunteers in to help deliver services, or administer the charity, or run the shops. "

However, if you’re bringing in someone with high skills and you’re essentially giving them the job of somebody else, or asking them to do a job that is usually paid for in that organisation, then I think it’s totally unacceptable that shouldn’t be paid the same as everyone else.

So to my final regular question. Can I have one unknown, but shareable fact about my interviewee?

He offers: "I’m secretary of Holborn St Pancras Labour Party."

Which I think isn’t spicy enough. So I press Simon a little further.

He tries again: "I abstained in the leadership election.  I didn’t support either candidate. I didn’t feel that either of them would have made a particularly great Prime Minister.  I was disappointed that Angela Eagle didn’t stand in the end.

"Whether she’d have won, I don’t know, but she would have certainly been a better candidate than the one that we have now."

On which note, it’s time to tuck in...

 

We ate

Shepherd’s pie and sirloin steak

We drank

Sancerre (me) and sparkling water (Simon)

 

 

 

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