Trustees’ Week Day 4 - Is your charity too afraid to campaign?
With a general election on the horizon, this may be the perfect time for your charity to campaign on its messages. The recent media storm about charities campaigning and their role in the political sphere shouldn’t put your charity off. Orlando Fraser, the chair of the Charity Commission, recently came out strongly to confirm that “Charities are free to campaign robustly in furtherance of their purposes”.
The Charity Commission’s guidance CC9 contains detailed guidance on campaigning and political activity for charities in England and Wales and you should read this guidance before engaging in any campaigning.
Campaigning can be an effective tool for charities as they have a vital role to play in society in promoting the interests of their beneficiaries and in contributing to public debate. Their direct experience of their beneficiaries’ needs means they are often uniquely placed to do so. However, it is important that political activity and campaigning does not become the reason for the charity’s existence, as an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.
How can charities campaign?
A charity can do what any other body or person trying to change a law or policy can do and is subject to the same restrictions. For instance, it must not incite people to violence and must obey the law and any relevant regulations for example on advertising, slander and libel.
Charities can seek to influence government or other public bodies by working with political parties or candidates to influence their decisions, for example by writing to the relevant government minister or have a meeting with an MP.
Other ways a charity can campaign include running a social media campaign, website or blog posts, petitions, partnerships and collaborations, in-person events, advocacy, lobbying and awareness campaigns.
If your charity has not campaigned before, you may want to speak to other charities who have more experience of campaigning for guidance on how to go about it, lessons they have learnt and what impact their campaign had.
Deciding whether the charity should engage in campaigning
The first step should always be to review your objects to ensure that campaigning on the issue in question would be in furtherance of your charitable purposes. You should also ensure that your governing document does not specifically restrict or prohibit campaigning or political activity.
When considering whether to campaign, charity trustees must carefully weigh up the possible benefits against the costs and risks so they can decide whether the campaign is likely to be an effective way of furthering or supporting the charity’s purposes. You should think about how the decision fits with the charity’s overall mission and aims, whether any claims the charity intends to make are well founded, and whether the likelihood of success is based on realistic expectations.
You should take accurate minutes of the discussions and decisions made by the trustees as evidence that you considered all the relevant factors before deciding to proceed with the campaigning. You should also ensure you have the relevant policies in place, such as a Campaigning Policy and a Social Media Policy.
However, trustees have discretion to decide how best to use the charity’s resources to achieve its purposes. Trustees are not required to campaign, nor should they feel under external pressure to do so. There may be other ways in which the charity can bring about the change which has less risk and may be a more effective use of the charity’s resources.
You must regularly consider the impact of your activities on the charity’s assets including its reputation, especially when it might attract significant public interest or criticism. The potential for criticism can be mitigated by the charity ensuring that it conducts its activities with respect and tolerance. If there is a risk that the charity will receive adverse media, you should pre-prepare a media response and make sure all of the charity’s staff and volunteers are also aware of the charity’s views on the matter.
You should decide how much of the charity’s resources should be allocated to the campaign and regularly review the effectiveness and impact of the campaign against measurable goals to ensure it is still in the best interest of the charity to continue the campaign.
Can a charity campaign in the lead up to a national or local election?
Be especially careful if you are carrying out political activity in the period between an election being announced and held. The Charity Commission has guidance on Charities, Elections and Referendums which you should read in conjunction with CC9 if your charity is considering participating in political activity in the lead up to a national or local election.
An essential quality of charities is that they are independent so they must not give their support to a particular political party or try to influence how people vote in the election. There are certain steps which you should take to ensure that a charity retains its independence in the run up to an election:
- If your charity’s policy position coincides with that of a political party, you can continue campaigning on that issue as long as you make it clear that you are independent from that political party and do nothing to encourage support for any political party.
- In any publicity material, you must not compare the charity’s views (favourably or otherwise) with those of a political party or electoral candidate.
- Charities should try to invite candidates and political party representatives from as wide a political spectrum as possible to public meetings about issues on which the charity is campaigning.
- Manage conflicts of interest and risks if any of the charity’s employees have a personal involvement with one particular political party.
- Charities can refuse to interact with a candidate if the trustees have good reason to believe that it would alienate the charity’s beneficiaries, users or supporters, or are advised by the police that to do so would create a risk of public disorder.
If you receive funding from the local authority, you may put your funding at risk by publishing any material that appears to be designed to influence public support for or against a political party.
Electoral law also has rules about activity that may be seen as election-related campaigning by all organisations, including charities, so you may need to register as a non-party campaigner with the Electoral Commission.
Any campaigning or political activities that your charity undertakes must be a legitimate and reasonable way for the trustees to further its purposes and must never be party political. Charities must remain independent and must not give their support to a particular candidate or political party.
Your starting point should always be the Charity Commission’s guidance which contains a useful checklist of things the trustees should consider before doing any campaigning. The Commission also has a 5-minute guide on this topic.
Please get in touch with the Charities Team if you would like advice on campaigning or assistance drafting a Campaigning Policy or a Social Media Policy.