Should charities be political?

Politics is a touchy subject no matter what industry you work in, and the third sector is no exception. The industries intertwine on a number of different fronts; through campaigns, legislation and even fundraising. Furthermore, the work charities do is often directly influenced by policies, party politics and current political ideals.

Anecdotally, in the lead up to writing this feature, I asked a number of different family members and friends if they thought charities should get involved in politics and the answer was overwhelmingly ‘no’.

Current Charity Commission rules do not ban charities engaging with politics, but any engagement must support the charity’s purpose and it must not be the “continuing and sole activity of the charity.” The Commission adds: “campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake.”

Charities must, however, be independent of any party affiliation. They can support specific party policies if those politics would help achieve the organisation’s purpose, however they can not be “used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual
trustee or staff members.”

They can also campaign using emotive or controversial evidencebased materials “where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign.”

Of course, there are a number of ways charities can be bought directly into the political world and discourse. They can do it willingly, by campaigning or making statements on current political events, or they can be dragged in (often unwillingly) by MPs and mainstream media.

But if the regulator says engaging in political context is acceptable, why are charities so heavily criticised for it?

“I have a bit of an obsession about the word politics and when it gets used, because at the moment it’s used as ‘you’re being political’ and usually what it means is that you’re being socially aware and you’re speaking up about inequality,” explains Christina Poulton, charity consultant.

A part of the purpose

In recent months, some large and well-known nature charities have plunged themselves into the political battlefield in response to government policies. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the National Trust launched a joint campaign to improve public involvement in UK policy debates around nature following concerns over environmental policies.

The campaign was initially launched in response to Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget, which supported expansion of fossil fuel and fracking as well as relaxing of planning laws in 38 ‘investment zones’ across England.

Only the former has been officially scrapped by current chancellor Jeremy Hunt, with the Autumn Statement announcing a “refocus” on investment zones.

Calling it an “attack on nature,” the RSPB posted across social media about the proposals. “We are angry and we are mobilising against these proposed plans”. It quickly gained traction for the ‘bold’ move. “The RSPB has been a campaigning organisation for over 100 years,” said RSPB chief executive in response to questions around the charity’s political activity.

“From our founders back in 1889 who were determined to put an end to the slaughter of birds for the feather trade, to today’s attack on nature, the importance of protecting and restoring nature transcends political and geographical boundaries.

“Securing the legal protections nature needs and the frameworks to drive nature’s recovery, especially during the nature and climate emergency, is a political issue but it is not a party political issue. The RSPB has a duty, in line with its core purpose, to challenge governments across the UK to tackle the issues affecting our natural world.”

So why are some charities choosing to be much more vocal now? Poulton suggests it’s because the policies this government are bringing in “are much more polarising,”

“When the government are making decisions that make that worse and your job is to try and make that better, it’s ridiculous not to say anything about it,” she says.

Poulton cites Runnymede as an example. “[Anti-racism] is literally what they’re about, of course they’re allowed to comment on it. But because they were critical of it, all of a sudden they’re being investigated.”

Similarly to the RSPB, in a response to the political environment and current policies, the National Trust emphasises its historical campaigning work in a blog written by director-general Hilary McGrady.

“I want to be clear that this isn’t about politics, it’s about standing up for the things we were set up to care about. We would ask any government that has said they will do away with critical protections to outline their plans and reassure us. And as the Charity Commission said… charities are entitled to ‘campaign with vigour and energy’, where it relates to their objectives.

“You may remember that in 2011 we campaigned against changes to the planning system, changes that could have led to damaging and unchecked development, and we spoke out passionately when precious forests were in danger of being sold off.”

Dragged into debate

The National Trust however is also a charity in a unique position, it is both a charity that has inserted itself into politics, and one that has also been dragged into mainstream political debate.

Only a few weeks ago, National Trust members rejected recommendations made by lobby group, Restore Trust. The group of self-styled “anti-woke” individuals – often favoured in right-wing press – publicly criticised the National Trust over rewilding and social inclusion policies. It put forward a motion to stop the charity taking part in pride events and rewilding, as well as put forward candidates for council seats, none of which won.

The so-called culture wars are becoming ever more common. “It’s a type of voter division,” explains Poulton. “It sits under a wider narrative, that all of a sudden the kind of work that charities have been doing for years without being bothered are now being criticised.

And for charities, their charitable status is then a vulnerability because you don’t have to prove anything, you just have to make a complaint to the Charity Commission.”

There are cases that support her argument happening now. Youth transgender support organisation, Mermaids, is being bought up in the house of commons and mainstream media as one of the few charities supporting trans rights in an increasingly gender-critical mainstream environment.

The articles called into question its safeguarding policies, prompting the Charity Commission to open a ‘regulatory compliance case’.

This is not a formal investigation, and it is not a finding of wrongdoing, but pending the commission’s scrutiny, a number of organisations have paused their relationships with Mermaids – the National Lottery Community Fund has suspended future payments and the Department for Education has removed it from its mental health and wellbeing resources for schools.

It is not the first time Mermaids has been in this situation. A complaint was previously made to the National Lottery Community Fund, which then chose to pause its payments. An investigation found no wrongdoing and the funds were released.

But situations like this have wider repercussions on charities too. Since the stories were published, Mermaids says its helpline had 130 abusive calls or messages between 27 September and 27 October (80 of which have been reported to police), including accusations of child abuse, compared with 29 in the previous six months. It has had to close its helplines on Wednesdays and reduce hours to protect its staff and volunteer’s safety and mental health.

“Security of our platforms and safeguarding of young people is of the utmost importance to us and we will continue to regularly review our processes and procedures to make sure our forums remain safe and secure,” the charity said at the time. Issues such as this makes boards more risk averse, Poulton emphasises.

The fear of what could happen is powerful and also makes funders risk averse. “A few charities I’ve worked with have been told by their funders to be careful. Or the same MPs who’ve complained to the charity have complained to the funders. You threaten the charitable status and you threaten the funding, that’s how you undermine the charity. Oh, and you can’t forget the media.”

Unfortunately, there is no clear solution as to how charities should handle its relationship with the political space. At the 2022 Charity Times Annual Conference, RNLI senior media engagement manager Claire-Marie Mason was asked how the charity handled its own political pressures. In response, she said that as much as possible, the organisation tries not to engage in anything that doesn’t meet its purpose.

So that brings us back the question, to what extent should charities be involved in politics? It’s clear that whilst lines are certainly somewhat blurred – perhaps more now than ever before – involvement in Westminster debate is always on the table (and encouraged, to some extent), but to achieve success, charities must always refer back to Charity Commission guidelines. And, perhaps most importantly, only seek involvement when it falls parallel to, and enhances, the ability to achieve the charity’s core mission.

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