Charities: Public debate, campaigning & politics

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Charities always operate in a public context because they exist for public benefit.

Consequently, what charities say and do will always be in the public eye. Charities often choose to campaign publicly and/or enter public debate about issues that concern their charitable purposes. This can be a valid approach, in the right circumstances.

Deciding whether it’s lawful and appropriate to engage in political activity is a particularly challenging decision for trustees, especially as we approach the upcoming general election. The stance taken by political leaders/organisations can have a profound impact on issues charities address and the people they exist to help. However, political debate can be highly charged and some views may be controversial and divisive.   

In the areas of public debate, campaigning and political activity charities must remain independent and impartial, acting and speaking only in the best interests of their charitable purposes.

The context

What’s happening in the outside world (internationally or locally) impacts charities. Most charities engage in public communications, with a website, social media presence, as well as presenting in public settings for meetings and conferences. In these ways they actively engage in public debate.

Many charities also campaign publicly to raise awareness, educate and generate public support for issues relevant to their charitable work and beneficiaries. Dialogue with public officials and political leaders on public policy issues that impact those areas may also be part of their activities.

Legal rules & reporting

Trustees must carefully consider decisions on their charity’s overall approach to campaigning, discussing and debating. This will determine whether their charity starts new (or joins existing) public debates, as well as commenting on a public dialogue. The law requires these decisions to focus on the best interests of the charitable purposes, public benefit and the beneficiaries.

The Charity Commission expects trustees to follow those rules and ensure any engagement by the charity is carried out in an informed and positive manner, based on sound judgements and relevant evidence.

Remember, your charity must provide an annual trustees’ report and accounts that can be viewed by the public. The report outlines your activities and explains how you have used your resources, what choices were made, why and what the outcomes were. It should demonstrate how any campaigning, public debate and political activities are justifiable. 

Particular rules & regulatory expectations

Campaigning

Charities may lawfully campaign on relevant issues at any time.

The regulator defines ‘campaigning’ as charitable activities to raise public awareness about, or educate or involve the public to support, particular issues relevant to your charitable purposes. It also considers campaigning to include efforts to influence or change public attitudes on relevant issues and work to encourage lawful behaviour.

Charities should base campaigns on sound evidence and articulate their case in a rational, reasoned way. A desire for powerful impact should not override accuracy, truth and appropriate language and tone.

Political activity

The Charity Commission considers ‘political activity’ to include seeking public support/opposition for/to:

– Retaining existing law

– Changes in the law

– Public policy

– Decisions of central government, local authorities and public bodies

It regards these to be political activities whether they are undertaken in the UK or overseas.

The Commission accepts that charities can legitimately try to influence political parties and independent candidates to support their view on a matter directly relevant to their charitable purposes. It also accepts charities can validly respond on such matters to consultations carried out by political parties, as well as those conducted by government, local authorities and public bodies.

Independence & neutrality

Charities are required by law to remain independent of party politics and to speak and act neutrally to party politics. So, if you want to make your views on a relevant matter known to one party, you should also consider contacting the other parties.

You can discuss policy issues which will directly affect your charitable purposes and even state that you support a specific policy, but your reasons must be entirely independent and focused on those purposes.

The Charity Commission says your charity cannot state support for a political party or its policy portfolio because many of the policies will have nothing to do with its charitable purposes. Additionally, you cannot give any of your funds or ‘in kind’ support to a political party, as this would use charitable resources outside your purposes.

You may approach serving politicians and election candidates to tell them about your concerns on relevant areas and ask for their views. Politicians, candidates and party representatives can be invited to your meetings, but you must ensure their presence and participation is not seen as indicative of your support for, or opposition to, them.

If a politician, election candidate or party wants to use your facilities (for example to host a hustings event) you should refuse if it risks alienating the public, your beneficiaries and/or supporters. Should you decide that them using your facilities is acceptable, you must hire them out your usual commercial rate.

It’s vital that you identify and deal properly with any conflicts of interest. Special care is needed if any charity staff or volunteers are candidates, or active supporters of a candidate/party. Any personal political activities and any public political statements must not suggest the charity shares those convictions.

Electoral law

Changes to electoral law require more charities than was previously the case to obey additional legal requirements.

If your organisation’s expenditure on ‘regulated campaign activities’ (in the UK) in the 12 months leading to an election is more than £10,000, you must register with the Electoral Commission now as a ‘non-party campaigner’ (the General Election will be held by the end of this year). This covers campaigning activities on issues around elections, which could influence people’s voting choice. It may well include your policy campaigns and your other lawful political activity.   

Registered organisations must appoint an individual as a responsible person to ensure they are complying with all relevant electoral law requirements. Campaigning expenditure and donations received to fund it must be recorded and reported to the Electoral Commission when it exceeds certain thresholds.

Organisations that are registered must make sure their activities comply with the new Non-party campaigner Code of Practice issued by the Electoral Commission.

So, what should you do?

We recommend you examine and discuss your charitable purposes, then review your overall campaigning and public engagement plans, as well as any specific intentions to take part in election-related dialogues.

You must be certain your activities are focused on furthering those purposes and you are not deviating from the core legal principles. This should be led by the trustee board. It’s important outcomes should be shared with your senior managers and others in your charity who engage with the public, including your marketing and communications people.

Burton Sweet has a longstanding commitment to charities and civil society organisations, offering practical, professional and passionate support.

Our team can help you deal well with the areas discussed in this article. This could include advising on policies and activities, running awareness training for trustees/staff/volunteers and providing guidance on your controls and governance procedures.

Useful links

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