‘Digital imprints needed’ in charity campaigning, regulators warn ahead of general election

Charities have been urged by election and charity regulators to ensure they are keeping up to date with latest campaigning guidance ahead of the forthcoming general election.

This includes ensuring charities include a digital imprint on online promotion that falls within electoral campaigning regulations, giving details on who is responsible for campaign material to improve transparency.

The call has come from the Electoral Commission chair John Pullinger and Charity Commission chair Orlando Fraser as a new code of practice comes into force from this month for non-party campaigners, including charities, unions and think tanks.

In a blog post to promote the code and ahead of 2024’s general election, Pullinger and Fraser stress that charities “need to know” about the new non-party campaigner code.

Among updates are measures, in accordance with part 6 of 2022’s Elections Act, which requires imprints on regulated digital campaign material. This could include social media posts, adverts in podcasts and in online newspapers, messages in WhatsApp and electronic billboard advertisement.

Within the code are examples of paid advertising, for example if a charity pays for a Twitter Blue account “this does not make all your posts paid adverts”.

But if a charity pays a social media company such as Facebook to boost the reach of a post by publishing it as advertising “then this will be a paid advert”, adds the guidance.

Pullinger and Fraser’s blog also reiterates that charities have to notify and register with the Electoral Commission if their campaigning spend is more than £10,000, previously this was if it was over £20,000 if in England.

“After the election, you may then need to provide financial returns, to support public transparency,” they say.

“If you think you might need to register, the Electoral Commission advises you to register early. Once an election is called, you cannot spend over the threshold until your registration is confirmed.”

They add: “We understand that these changes can appear daunting. That’s why we want to make sure you feel equipped to enter the next election period, undertaking any campaigning to advance your charity’s purposes, with confidence.

“We want to stress that electoral law exists not to limit campaigning, but to ensure that there is transparency around key campaigning activity.

“Finally, everyone who engages in policy discussions around elections plays a part in supporting respectful debate and public confidence, but charities hold a unique position in law, and can and should model a better kind of discourse while championing their important work.

“If you do choose to engage, we expect you to do so in a manner that is respectful and tolerant and in a tone that reflects your standing as a registered charity.”

‘Lack of clarity’

Last month it emerged that only one in six charity trustees thought advice from the Charity Commission around their campaigning is clear. Two in five charities believe it is “open to interpretation”, while a similar proportion say they are unfamiliar with this aspect of the Charity Commission’s regulation.

In addition, under three in ten trustees think that the Charity Commission’s formal guidance and public commentary around campaigning are at odds with each other.

Just one in ten trustees believe the regulator’s formal guidance and public commentary on campaigning match up, found the survey by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation.

A separate survey of charity campaigners published in March this year by the Foundation found that seven in ten believe politicians “have become more hostile to campaigning” over the last year.

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