Speaking out guidance on campaigning and political activity by charities (CC9)

(Version - March 2008)

Speaking out guidance on campaigning and political activity by charities (CC9) Find out what charities and their trustees need to consider when campaigning or engaging in political activity

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Contents

A. Foreword

Dear Reader,

All charities are united by having a vision of a better society. They have many different purposes, and are focused on different needs. But in the main they are united by a desire to achieve change, whether for a particular group of people in need, or for the wider common good. It is not surprising then that many charities wish to speak out, to use their voice and influence, and to campaign for the changes that would best help them achieve their purposes.

We have produced this updated guidance at a time of major change for charities. A new Charities Act has just come into force. There has also been considerable public debate about the campaigning role of charities. Although the fundamentals of charity law on campaigning and political activity have not changed, we have rewritten our guidance in order to ensure its relevance to today’s trustees. In particular we have tried to find a more helpful way of describing the terms ‘dominant’ and ‘ancillary’, which many users of our previous guidance told us they found difficult to understand.

The experience of charities means that it is right that they should have a strong and assertive voice. Often they speak for those who are powerless, and cannot make their case themselves. Sometimes charities confront extreme social injustice, which they will want to tackle head-on. The work that charities do, and the major role they play in public life, is something they should be proud of.

The law makes a distinction between charitable purposes, and charitable activities. A charity must be established for a charitable purpose, and as a general principle, charities may undertake campaigning and political activity as a positive way of furthering or supporting their purposes. Charities have considerable freedom to do so, subject to the law and the terms of their governing documents. In doing so, charities must be mindful of their independence. Charities, of course, can never engage in any form of party political activity.

This guidance aims to help trustees work out the best way of getting their message across confidently. There are questions that trustees need to consider before starting any campaigning and political activity, for instance where the activity fits in their overall strategy, and its likelihood of success. In this guidance, we give answers to the most frequent questions that arise, and have included a Checklist for Trustees, so that they can make well-informed decisions, and speak out on the things that matter most to their charity, if they choose to do so.

We hope that you will find it useful.

Dame Suzi Leather
Chair
Sam Younger
Chief Executive

 

B. Campaigning and political activity by charities at a glance

This section summarises the main points for charity trustees to consider. They are based on a mixture of case law, charity law, and good practice, and are covered in more detail in the guidance.

B1. Key points about campaigning and political activity

  • Symbol showing legal requirement To be a charity an organisation must be established for charitable purposes only, which are for the public benefit. An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.
  • Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake.
  • Symbol showing legal requirement However, political campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. Unlike other forms of campaigning, it must not be the continuing and sole activity of the charity. (Section D5 provides a fuller explanation.)
  • There may be situations where carrying out political activity is the best way for trustees to support the charity’s purposes. A charity may choose to focus most, or all, of its resources on political activity for a period. The key issue for charity trustees is the need to ensure that this activity is not, and does not become, the reason for the charity’s existence.
  • Charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions (as detailed in this guidance in section C4) where such change would support the charity’s purposes. Charities can also campaign to ensure that existing laws are observed.
  • Symbol showing legal requirement However, a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party, or securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions either in this country or abroad.
  • Symbol showing legal requirement In the political arena, a charity must stress its independence and ensure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced. A charity must not give support or funding to a political party, nor to a candidate or politician.
  • A charity may give its support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes. However, trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member (in this context we mean personal or party political views).
  • Symbol showing legal requirement As with any decision they make, when considering campaigning and political activity charity trustees must carefully weigh up the possible benefits against the costs and risks in deciding whether the campaign is likely to be an effective way of furthering or supporting the charity’s purposes.
  • Symbol showing legal requirement When campaigning, charity trustees must comply not only with charity law, but other civil and criminal laws that may apply. Where applicable they should also comply with the Code of the Advertising Standards Authority.
  • A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material, where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign. Such material must be factually accurate and have a legitimate evidence base.
  • The principles of charity campaigning and political activity are the same, whether the activity is carried out in the United Kingdom or overseas.

C. Introduction

C1. What this guidance covers

This publication gives guidance on the legal and regulatory framework for charities wishing to engage in campaigning and political activity. The guidance:

  • describes the activities that charities can properly undertake under the existing law (sections D and E are where the key charity law is explained);
  • outlines the factors charities should assess as part of their planning for campaigning and political activity; and
  • provides practical examples illustrating the effect of the guidance for specific types of campaigning and charity.

The guidance is primarily intended for existing charities, but it may also be of interest to organisations considering applying for registration as charities. Whilst many of the factors for consideration apply also to other areas of charitable activity, we have included them here in order to support good governance in this important area of charities’ work. To support charity trustees’ use of this guidance we have included examples throughout the text, and a Checklist for Trustees (Appendix 1).

C2. This guidance and earlier versions

This guidance replaces the earlier version, CC9 - Campaigning and Political Activities by Charities, which we updated in 2004, and also the Questions and Answers on CC9, published in 2007. Since then, a new Charities Act has been passed, and the social context has continued to change. Our experience is that some charities have been overly cautious, and inclined to self-censor their campaigning activity. We want all charities to be confident about what they can legitimately do if they decide to. Therefore, although the basic legal position as regards charity campaigning has not changed, this guidance focuses first on the freedoms and possibilities for charities to campaign, and only then on the restrictions and risks that trustees must bear in mind.

Campaigning, advocacy and political activity are all legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake. Many charities have strong links to their beneficiaries, and more generally to their local communities, commanding high levels of public trust and confidence, and representing a myriad of diverse causes. Because of this, they are uniquely placed to campaign and advocate on behalf of their beneficiaries. When charities seek to change the law or government policy, certain rules apply. In this guidance we explain these rules in plain terms that provide clarification. As with our previous guidance, we have also included some guidance on areas of good practice.

C3. The wider context

As well as the changes mentioned above, there have been other important developments and changes in the environment in which charities operate, that have informed the rewriting of this guidance:

  • An increase in the sophistication of campaigning and political activity carried out by charities.
  • The acceptance, in the last few years, of some purposes as charitable, that were previously regarded as political. For example, the promotion of human rights following the Human Rights Act 1998.
  • The changes in the Charities Act 2006 which set out thirteen descriptions of charitable headings.
  • Comments in the report on The future role of the third sector in social and economic regeneration, published jointly by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office in July 2007.
  • The appointment of a Compact Commissioner in July 2006 has underlined the importance of the Compact between Government and the voluntary sector, which recognises voluntary and community sector organisations’ right to campaign in its Key Compact Principles.
  • Research carried out by us and others, which identified that some trustees did not appreciate the existing freedoms that charities have to campaign, and did not find our guidance clear.
  • Concerns expressed by a number of stakeholders about the potentially damaging implications for public trust and confidence in charities where charities take on too great an involvement in political activity.
  • Some evidence that there are a number of commonly held public misconceptions about charity. For example, many people assume that some campaigning organisations are charities, even though they are organisations that do not in fact have charitable status because the nature of their purpose is political.

C4. What do we mean by ‘campaigning’ and ‘political activity’?

Everyday use and understanding of the terms ‘campaigning’ and ‘political activity’ can be quite wide in scope. For example, the term ‘political activity’ may be associated in people’s minds with party political activity; this is not how it is used in this guidance. For the purpose of this guidance our definitions, based on charity law, are set out below:

(1) Campaigning: We use this word to refer to awareness-raising and to efforts to educate or involve the public by mobilising their support on a particular issue, or to influence or change public attitudes. We also use it to refer to campaigning activity which aims to ensure that existing laws are observed. We distinguish this from an activity which involves trying to secure support for, or oppose, a change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad, and which we refer to in this guidance as ‘political activity’. Examples of campaigning might include:

  • a health charity promoting the benefits of a balanced diet in reducing heart problems;
  • a refugee charity, emphasising the positive contribution that refugees have made to society and calling for Government to enforce existing legislation that supports the rights of refugees;
  • a children’s charity, drawing attention to the dangers of domestic violence and child abuse;
  • a human rights charity calling on a government to observe certain fundamental human rights, and for the practice of torture to be abolished;
  • a charity concerned with poverty and the environment campaigning against investment by some banks in fossil fuel extraction projects; or
  • a disability charity calling for existing legislation to be adhered to in order to ensure that all children with special educational needs receive the support they are entitled to in order to access learning.

Sometimes fundraising activity is referred to as a fundraising ‘campaign’ – this is not campaigning as defined in this guidance.

(2) Political activity: Political activity, as defined in this guidance, must only be undertaken by a charity in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. We use this term to refer to activity by a charity which is aimed at securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad. It includes activity to preserve an existing piece of legislation, where a charity opposes it being repealed or amended. This differs from activity aimed at ensuring that an existing law is observed, which falls under (1), Campaigning.

Political activity might include some or all of:

  • raising public support for such a change;
  • seeking to influence political parties or independent candidates, decision-makers, politicians or public servants on the charity’s position in various ways in support of the desired change; and responding to consultations carried out by political parties.

It is essential to note that charities cannot give their support to a political party (section E1 provides guidance on working with parties, politicians and independent candidates).

Clearly, there is not always a clear demarcation between campaigning and political activity, and a charity might well undertake a phase of activity which has various elements. This guidance is focused on the factors that trustees will need to consider in deciding what it is right for them to do. It also makes clear that supporting a political party is not an acceptable form of political activity for a charity.

C5. Meaning of other words and expressions used

In this guidance:

‘Must’ and ‘should’: In this guidance, where we use ‘must’, we mean it is a specific legal or regulatory requirement affecting trustees or a charity. Trustees must comply with these requirements. To help you identify those sections which contain a legal requirement we have used theSymbol showing legal requirement symbol next to the short answer in that section. We use ‘should’ for items we regard as minimum good practice, but for which there is no specific legal requirement. Trustees should follow good practice guidance unless there is a good reason not to.

Governing document: A document that sets out the charity's purposes and, usually, how it is to be administered. It may be a trust deed, constitution, memorandum and articles of association, will, conveyance, Royal Charter, or Scheme of the Charity Commission.

Trustees means charity trustees. Charity trustees are the people who are responsible for the general control and management of the administration of the charity. They may be called trustees, managing trustees, committee members, governors, directors or they may be referred to by some other title. In the case of an unincorporated association, the members of the executive or management committee are its charity trustees; in the case of a charitable company, it is the directors.

Charitable purposes mean purposes which the law regards as charitable. These are now set out in the Charities Act 2006. To be a charity, all purposes of an organisation must be exclusively charitable. A charity cannot have some purposes which are charitable as well as others which are not; each and every purpose of a charity must be charitable in its own right. A charity’s purposes are set out in its governing document.

Political purpose: A political purpose means any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party; or securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad.

Public body: Includes all ministries, departments and agencies of government, whether local, regional, national, in the UK or overseas. Examples include:

  • The UN, other international bodies, and their agencies.
  • The European Union and its associated bodies.
  • The World Bank and similarly constituted bodies.
  • NHS Trusts.
  • Regional assemblies, development agencies and corporations.
  • Non-departmental public bodies and agencies (excepting those that are registered charities).
  • Similar bodies and agencies in other countries.

The term is not intended to include charities, private companies or corporations, or other independent and private bodies.

D. The key questions

This section answers nine key questions about the fundamentals of what charities can and cannot do under charity law (section G1 refers to other legislation). It describes the different kinds of campaigning and political activity that exist, and how charities should approach the possibility of undertaking campaigning work. It stresses that charities are free to campaign, and that they can expect our support if they decide to do so. It also describes the limits that charitable status creates – fundamentally that all campaigning and political activity must further or support charitable purposes, and that such activity must never be party political.

D1. Can a charity carry out campaigning and political activity?

The short answer

Yes – any charity can become involved in campaigning and in political activity which further or support its charitable purposes, unless its governing document prohibits it.

In more detail

Engagement in campaigning is a means by which many charities work to further their purposes, and many charities also engage in political activity in support of those purposes.

So long as a charity is engaging in campaigning or political activity solely in order to further or support its charitable purposes, and there is a reasonable likelihood of it being effective, it may carry out campaigning and political activity, as set out in this guidance. The activities it undertakes must be a legitimate and reasonable way for the trustees to further those purposes, and must never be party political.

A charity can make public comment on social, economic and political issues if these relate to its purpose, or the way in which the charity is able to carry out its work.

These principles lie behind all of this guidance. Whilst there is no limit on the extent to which charities can engage in campaigning in furtherance of their charitable purposes, political activity can only be a means of supporting or contributing to the achievement of those purposes, although it may be a significant contribution. Hence, political activity cannot be the only way in which a charity pursues its charitable purposes.

There may be some charities which cannot campaign because of restrictions in their governing document.

D2. Must a charity campaign and engage in political activity?

The short answer

No - trustees have discretion to decide how best to use the resources of their charity to achieve its purposes. Trustees are not required to campaign, nor should they feel under external pressure to do so.

In more detail

Whilst charities do not have to campaign, charity trustees should consider the best way of achieving their charitable purposes, and as part of this consideration they may need to think about the role that campaigning could play.

Where they believe it would be in the interests of the charity’s beneficiaries to do so, trustees are also entitled to engage in political activity. However, they are not under any obligation to engage in such activity.

These activities can be a highly effective means of pursuing a charitable purpose, even where the matters at issue are controversial. Charities 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.

D3. Can a charity have a political purpose?

Symbol showing legal requirement

The short answer

A charity cannot have a political purpose. Nor can a charity undertake political activity that is not relevant to, and does not have a reasonable likelihood of, supporting the charity’s charitable purposes.

Whilst a charity cannot have political activity as a purpose, the range of charitable purposes under which an organisation can register as a charity means that, inevitably, there are some purposes (such as the promotion of human rights) which are more likely than others to lead trustees to want to engage in campaigning and political activity. (See section D4 for information on including campaigning and political activity in a governing document.)

In more detail

A charity cannot have political activity as any of its charitable purposes. This is because a charitable purpose must fall within the description of purposes set out in the Charities Act 2006. However, political activity can be carried out by a charity to support the deliver of its charitable purposes.

Political activity: Political activity, as defined in this guidance, must only be undertaken by a charity in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. We use this term to refer to activity by a charity which is aimed at securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad. This differs from activity aimed at ensuring that an existing law is upheld, which falls under our definition of Campaigning.

Political activity might include some or all of:

  • raising public support for such a change;
  • seeking to influence political parties or independent candidates, decision-makers, politicians or public servants on the charity’s position in various ways in support of the desired change; and responding to consultations.

It is essential to note that charities cannot give their support to a political party. (Section E1 provides guidance on working with parties, politicians and independent candidates.)

Political purpose: A political purpose means any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party; or securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government or local authorities, whether in this country or abroad.

Organisations with a political purpose: In order to be a charity, an organisation must have purposes which are charitable and for the public benefit. An organisation with a political purpose, such as promoting a change in the law, legally cannot be a charity. This applies even if the organisation has other purposes which are charitable. This would involve looking at ‘political’ questions, which neither we nor the courts are in a position to answer. Constitutionally, it is not possible for the Charity Commission or the Courts to make decisions about whether a change in the law or Government policy would be for the public benefit. However, organisations which are established to ensure that the law is observed, for example respecting certain fundamental human rights, will not automatically fall within this definition. This is a complex area and we will explore with charities established for the advancement of human rights, the boundaries of this particular charitable purpose in relation to campaigning and political activity.

Example: An organisation set up to oppose a new runway at an airport applies for charity registration. The Charity Commission would reject the application as having a political purpose, as it would oppose the Government’s policy on airports.

Example: An organisation set up to protect the environment applies for charity registration. The organisation carries out a range of activities, including some political activity aimed at securing a change in the Government’s policy on airports. The Charity Commission would accept the application if it was clear that securing a change in Government policy was not the continuing and sole activity of the charity, but part of a wider range of activities aimed at furthering its charitable purposes.

Example: An organisation which has been established to protect life and property by the prevention of all abortions applies for charity registration. Since the purpose can only be achieved through a change in law, the Charity Commission would reject the application as having a political purpose.

D4. Can a charity have campaigning or political activity in its governing document?

The short answer

Yes – providing it is explained in its governing document that this campaigning or political activity will be a means of furthering or supporting its charitable purposes.

In more detail

Need for a power to campaign: It is not legally necessary for a registered charity to have an express power to campaign included in its governing document, in order to carry out campaigning activities (whether political or otherwise). This means that a charity will only need to amend its governing document to campaign if there is some restriction on its power to do so.

Governing document: For a charity or for an organisation applying for registration as a charity, which has campaigning as a major part of its work, it may be sensible for it to spell out in its governing document what it can do, and any limitations. For instance, we suggest a form of words in our model objects for charities set up to promote human rights, where there is a power to engage in campaigning. This is available on our website.

Example: A human rights charity conducts campaigning and political activity as a major part of its work. For example, it seeks to ensure that the Governments of some countries overseas abide by international statutes. It also carries out some of the following activities and its governing document may refer to them:

  • monitoring abuses of human rights;
  • obtaining redress for the victims of human rights abuse;
  • relieving need among the victims of human rights abuse;
  • research into human rights issues;
  • educating the public about human rights;
  • providing technical advice to government and others on human rights matters;
  • commenting on proposed human rights legislation;
  • raising awareness of human rights issues;
  • promoting public support for human rights; and
  • promoting respect for human rights by individuals and corporations.

D5. Can a charity carry out political activity?

Symbol showing legal requirement

The short answer

Although a political organisation cannot be a charity, a charity can, in support of its charitable purposes, undertake a range of political activities. However these cannot be the only activities that the charity carries out.

In more detail

The key principle: Although organisations that are established to pursue political purposes cannot be charities, political activity may be carried out by charities, but only as a means of supporting their charitable purposes. For the same reason that a political purpose cannot be charitable, political activity can only support, or contribute to, the achievement of charitable purposes. This means that political activity cannot be the continuing and sole activity of the charity.

In deciding whether or not to undertake political activity, trustees must first decide whether there is a reasonable expectation that it will support the charity’s purposes. (See section F1 for further factors that trustees should take into account.)

Example: A charity set up for the welfare of refugees and asylum-seekers identifies that changes to benefit regulations are leaving certain classes of asylum-seeker completely destitute. It decides that changing the regulations will be for the benefit of many asylum-seekers, and supports the charity’s purposes. Therefore, it undertakes political activity aimed at persuading government to make the necessary changes, with a petition delivered to Downing Street, a lobby of Parliament and other linked activity.

Things for trustees to think about: As with any activity trustees must exercise their discretion properly in deciding to undertake political activity. Trustees should consider the range of other activities open to them, take appropriate factors into account, consider only the relevant factors, and make decisions that reasonable trustees would make. As part of this decision-making process trustees need to think about how the decision fits with the charity’s overall mission and aims, whether any claims they intend to make are well founded, and whether the likelihood of success is based on realistic expectations. Trustees should also regularly review the effectiveness and impact of the campaign, and their decision to engage in it. (See section F1 for further details on the matters that trustees need to take into account.)

D6. Can an organisation that carries out political activity be a charity?

Symbol showing legal requirement

The short answer

Yes – although it is dependent on the purposes for which the organisation is established, and the ways in which the organisation wishes to further those purposes, including through campaigning. (See sections D3-D5.)

In more detail

A campaigning organisation can become a charity, so long as it has charitable purposes only, and the campaigning is entirely in support of those purposes. However, if the reason for its existence is to pursue a political purpose it cannot become a charity, because it is not possible to assess whether it is for the public benefit. Therefore an organisation which wishes to carry out its campaigning work primarily through political activity could not become a charity.

Charity registration: A campaigning organisation with charitable purposes, as now defined by the Charities Act 2006, can apply for charity registration. Indeed, if it has entirely charitable purposes, it must seek registration. An organisation which has some purposes which are not charitable is not eligible to be a charity, even if its other purposes are charitable. Whilst it is perfectly legitimate for a group of people to set up such an organisation, for instance to pursue purely political purposes, it will not be eligible for registration as a charity.

Alternative options: Some campaigning organisations choose not to seek charitable status in order to be free to pursue political purposes as they see fit. A non-charitable campaigning organisation can be set up as non-profit distributing, for instance as a company limited by guarantee, or a non-charitable Industrial and Provident Society. Some charities choose to work alongside an associated non-charitable campaigning organisation, and this is also a legitimate option.

D7. Can a charity carry out political activity for a change in the law?

The short answer

Yes – charities may carry out political activity for a change in the law if it supports their own charitable purpose.

In more detail

Political activity, including campaigning for a change in the law, is an entirely legitimate activity and can be an effective means of supporting a charitable purpose. However, as set out in section D3, it is not a charitable purpose to campaign for changes to the law whether in the UK or overseas.

Legislation going through Parliament: A charity can support or oppose the passage of a Parliamentary Bill, or Welsh Assembly Proposed Measure (similar to a Parliamentary Bill), if this can reasonably be expected to support the delivery of its charitable purposes. A charity may provide and publish comments on possible or proposed changes in the law or government policy, whether contained in a Green or White Paper, draft Parliamentary Bill or elsewhere. A charity may also supply to Members of either House relevant information or briefing about the implications of a Parliamentary Bill, for use in debate. A charity can also seek to promote a change in legislation or public policy overseas (see section G7).

Promoting new legislation: On the same basis a charity can also promote the need for a particular piece of legislation. Subject to their purposes, charities may be able to persuade government departments to introduce or adopt legislation. The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 was, for example, the direct result of lobbying by a number of charities.

Acceptable methods: A charity can do what any other body or person trying to change that law can do. For example, it can write to or meet the relevant government minister explaining its concerns, brief MPs, and ask its supporters to help. It is of course subject to the same restrictions. For instance it must not defame people or incite people to violence. It must obey the civil and criminal law and any relevant regulations.

Example: An organisation was set up to campaign for an end to all animal experimentation in the UK. This was considered by the courts not to be charitable, because the only way of achieving its purpose was to seek a change in the law, thus its reason for existing would not come under any of the charitable purposes defined in charity law. It was also considered that an end to animal experimentation could well be against the public interest, as medical research would thus be curtailed. However, it is possible that a charity with wider animal welfare objects could campaign for amendments to the law on animal experimentation, where it could show that such amendments would be likely to support the delivery of its charitable purposes.

D8. Can a charity focus all its resources on political activity?

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The short answer

A charity may choose to focus most, or all, of its resources on political activity for a period. The key issue for charity trustees is the need to ensure that this activity is not, and does not become, the reason for the charity’s existence.

For any charity, political activity can only be a means of supporting or contributing to the achievement of its charitable purposes. It cannot be a charitable purpose in its own right, or the only means by which the charity pursues its objects.

In more detail

Charitable purposes: Charity law requires that political activity must always support a charitable purpose. The Charities Act 2006 describes the charitable purposes for which an organisation can be established as a charity.

Use of charitable resources: There could be particular situations where a charity may lawfully apply most, or even all, of its resources to political activity, in support of a charitable purpose. These situations must apply only for a period in the overall life of the charity. In such cases, the trustees must have looked carefully at the range of means open to them, and to have decided that for the time being the charity’s purposes were most effectively pursued through political activity.

Such a situation could arise where a charity had identified that political activity could bring major benefits to its beneficiaries, and that there was a good chance of success. It might then consider a campaign aimed at securing a change in the law or in significantly raising public awareness. It could lawfully commit all its resources in that way to such a campaign.

Example: A local and long established charity, set up to ensure the preservation of an English village, becomes aware that a local authority is in the process of approving a proposal for a large new development that would negatively affect the village if it went ahead. The charity decides that it should devote all its resources to campaign against the proposal, as it has reasonable grounds for believing that this would be an effective way of supporting, or contributing, to the achievement of its charitable purposes. At the outset it does not know how long it may need to campaign for but trustees have considered the risks and they also decide to regularly review the appropriateness of continuing to use the charity’s resources for the activity.

This is acceptable political activity even though the charity plans to use all its resources for the time being, subject to review.

D9. Can a charity campaign or carry out political activity to influence government or other bodies?

Symbol showing legal requirement

The short answer

Yes – a charity can seek to influence government or other public bodies, providing it is in support of their charitable purposes. However trustees must take care to avoid an approach which is purely focused on political activity as this could call into question the propriety of their actions, or ultimately, their charitable status.

In more detail

Government: A charity can seek to influence central or local government or public opinion issues relating to the charity’s purposes. A charity may also speak out on issues of relevance to the wider well-being of the charitable sector. These principles apply both to consideration of new and of existing public policy. They also apply at a national, regional and local level.

Supporting existing legislation: A charity can engage in campaigning activity which aims to ensure that existing laws are observed. We distinguish this from political activity, which involves trying to secure support for, or oppose, a change in the law or public policy; this includes activity to preserve an existing piece of legislation, where the charity opposes it being repealed or amended (see section C4).

Supporting government policy: Just as opposing a government policy may further a charity’s objects, so supporting a policy may also be capable of contributing to the achievement of a charity’s purposes. Legally, the same considerations apply.

Other public bodies: When a charity seeks to influence any public body, the issues are the same as for work directed at government departments or local authorities - the activity is in our terms a political one. We take a wide view of what constitutes a public body. Examples include:

  • The UN and its agencies.
  • The World Bank.
  • The European Union.
  • NHS Trusts.
  • Regional assemblies, development agencies and corporations.
  • Non-departmental public bodies and agencies (excepting those that are registered charities).
  • Government bodies and agencies in other countries.

Private companies: If the target of a campaign is a private company then the activity is not regarded as political. For example, a campaign aimed at changing the policies or behaviour of a private company through shareholder action, or a campaign to encourage a large multinational company to sell fair-trade products. Trustees must still ask themselves whether the campaign will further the purposes of the charity, and whether it will do so to an extent that justifies the resources devoted to it.

Examples of acceptable political activity:

  • A local charity for homeless people provides assistance in connection with an appeal against a decision of a local authority not to award accommodation.
  • A national charity for homeless people promotes the need for a change in public policy relating to how decisions are made in allocating accommodation.
  • A civic trust seeks to influence decisions by a local authority concerning the listing of buildings of architectural merit.
  • A national conservation charity seeks to influence decisions by the body responsible for the listing of buildings.
  • A charity set up for the relief of poverty abroad is able to campaign in favour of the adoption of human rights in a particular country, if it can show that the adoption of those particular rights would have the effect of relieving poverty in that country.

E. Working with political parties and politicians

This section is about the relationship that charities may have with political parties, individual politicians or independent candidates. Charities will often wish to influence political decision-makers. Although charities cannot give their support to a political party, there are many ways in which they can lawfully work in the political arena.

E1. Can a charity support a political party?

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The short answer

No – a charity must not give its support to any one political party. It may express support for particular policies which will contribute to the delivery of its own charitable purposes so long as its independence is maintained, and perceptions of its independence are not adversely affected.

In more detail

Support for a political party: To support a political party is not in itself a charitable purpose. However, a charity may give support to a specific policy which is advocated by a political party. A charity cannot give general support to a political party, because all political parties have a range of policies. So if a charity endorses a party because it agrees with one policy (say on climate change), it is effectively supporting the party as a whole and will be endorsing the party’s wider policies (say on taxation, education, defence etc), which are nothing to do with the charity’s purposes. Whilst support for a specific policy may be an important way of contributing to a charity’s purposes, support for a political party even when it advocates a policy that the charity supports, is not open to a charity. A charity cannot give financial support, or support in kind, to a political party.

Support for the policies of a Government: As set out in section E2 a charity can advocate support for a particular policy advocated by a political party or candidate, provided that it supports the charity’s policies. A charity can also advocate support for a policy which coincides with Government policy so long as it is clear about its reasons for doing so.

Charity independence: A charity must always guard its independence, and ensure it remains independent. In supporting a policy that a political party or Government also advocates, a charity should stress and make clear its independence, both to its supporters and to those people whose views it is seeking to influence.

Further information: We have separate guidance on Campaigning and Elections, which is for use by charities during the period between the announcement of an election, and the date on which an election is held.

Example: A chief executive of a charity, in that capacity, signs a letter to a newspaper advocating support for a political candidate. This would clearly be party political activity and, as such, is not permitted activity for charities.

E2. Can a charity engage with a political party?

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The short answer

Yes – a charity may engage with a political party in ways that supports its own charitable purposes. In doing so, it must remain politically neutral and should consider working with other parties to help ensure public perceptions of neutrality. Trustees should be as open and transparent as possible about any engagement their charity has with a political party.

In more detail

Contact with parties: The principles which apply to charities' involvement in campaigning apply equally to charities' contact with political parties and their representatives. Such contact is a natural part of some campaigns. Some caution is desirable. The public attach great importance to the independence of charities and have confidence in their work. To protect their reputation, charities need to pay particular consideration to the consequences of working with political parties and their representatives, and be open and transparent about any contact they have.

Support for policies: It is acceptable for a charity to advocate support for a particular policy advocated by a political party or candidate, provided that the policy supports the charity's purposes. However a charity must not support a political party or candidate.

Policy debates: Charities may be offered the opportunity to participate in policy discussions organised by political parties, for instance at a fringe meeting at a party conference. The principle governing this sort of activity is that a charity can try to influence the policies of political parties (in the interests of its beneficiaries), but must not assist any political party to get elected. So, the charity could accept invitations from all the major political parties to explain the needs of its beneficiary group (for example, explaining the problems faced by parents when seeking employment). It might in fact want to contact all the major parties proactively to set out those needs. If it were to accept invitations from or contact only one of the major political parties, and did so consistently over time, this could call into question whether the charity was in fact remaining politically neutral.

Risk of ‘exploitation’: A charity should be alert to the risk that a political party could exploit the charity’s participation in policy discussions for its own benefit rather than that of the charity's beneficiaries. As part of managing this risk a charity should be open and transparent about any engagement it has with political parties.

Example: A chief executive of a charity, in that capacity, is invited to speak at a fringe event at a party conference. This would be acceptable political activity providing he/she, and their trustees, are clear that being there supports the charitable purposes and that perceptions of the charity’s independence are unaffected.

Example: A charity is invited by a political party to comment on its draft manifesto. The charity agrees to comment, but only on those aspects that impact upon its beneficiaries. It also makes the same offer to all the main political parties. This is acceptable.

E3. Can a charity engage with politicians?

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The short answer

Yes – there are a number of ways in which charities can engage with individual politicians. In doing so, they must remain politically neutral and should consider working with other parties to help ensure public perceptions of neutrality.

In more detail

Speaking invitations: A charity can invite a politician to speak in support of its aims, for example at a reception to launch a national campaign, or at an AGM. Whilst ideally a charity enlisting the support of politicians should, for reasons of independence and neutrality, seek cross party representation, some forms of campaign methods might make this impractical.

The need for neutrality: We would be concerned if a charity consistently enlisted the support of politicians from one political party only. Due consideration should be given by a charity to ensuring that the methods chosen for delivering a campaign are part of a well thought through strategy and do not inadvertently result in any form of partisan support.

Publishing the views of politicians, and of Government and Shadow Ministers: A charity may publish the views of local councillors, Members of Parliament, Welsh Assembly Members, and election candidates, and also the views of Government Ministers and Shadow spokespeople, where these views relate to the charity’s purposes, and publishing them will support the charity’s work in some way. The charity should consider the impact of the range and scope of the views, and how they are expressed, on its overall work. As part of this consideration the trustees should assess whether the views expressed represent any risks to the charity’s reputation.

Single issues: A charity may ask representatives of all the parties what their view is on a particular issue, and publicise their answers. So for example, the charity could organise a debate where all the parties were invited to discuss the issue – or it could print interviews with representatives from all the parties in its magazine or website.

Providing information about politicians: A charity can provide information to its supporters or to the public on how individual Members of Parliament, Welsh Assembly Members, local councillors or parties have voted on an issue, in order to influence them to change their position. It must be able to explain its reasons for doing so if requested – the issue in question must be linked to the charity’s purposes.

Example: A charity invites a politician to attend and to make a speech at the opening of a new charity shop. This invitation is acceptable, providing the charity has briefed the politician about the purpose of the event, and has a reasonable expectation that the politician will speak in support of the charity's work, rather than using it for promoting any party political messages.

Example: A charity launches a report at a reception. At the event, photos are taken of leading politicians alongside the charity’s beneficiaries. This is acceptable providing that the charity has made it clear that the photo is being taken to promote the charity’s work and not the politicians’ own work.

E4. Do things change when an election has been called?

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The short answer

Yes – once an election has been called, charities that are campaigning will need to take special care to ensure their political neutrality. For example, a charity must not provide funds, or other resources, to a political candidate.

In more detail

A charity must never indicate to its supporters which candidate to support in an election. See section E3 for acceptable activities by a charity in relation to politicians. During an election period, the need for impartiality and balance is intensified, and charities must take particular care when undertaking any activities in the political arena.

Further information

We have published separate guidance for charities to use during the period between the announcement of an election, and the date on which an election is held.

F. Questions for trustees

This section is focused on the trustees of charities, and the issues they should consider before embarking on campaigning or political activity. Although campaigning is a legitimate activity for charities and the considerations that apply are similar to those for any other activity: trustees should be confident that the options, risks, costs and benefits have been carefully weighed up before starting a campaign.

F1. What factors should trustees take into account?

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The short answer

As with any activity, campaigning and political activity will carry some opportunities and risks which trustees will need to identify and plan to manage. Trustees must be satisfied on reasonable grounds that the activities are likely be an effective means of furthering or supporting the purposes of the charity; and are able to justify the resources applied. There are a range of ways which trustees might consider using to satisfy themselves of this, and to demonstrate that they have done so; for example by keeping a risk register, a business plan, and the minuting of meetings where such issues have been considered.

In more detail

The nature of campaigning, and the changing nature of the environment within which it takes place, means that it is an area of activity where new and innovative approaches are often developed. Within the framework of this guidance, the Commission supports charities in this. It is important that the risks are identified and managed; it is also important that trustees are not overly cautious or risk averse.

Agreeing objectives: When planning or considering a campaign or political activity, trustees need to be clear about how the campaign or activity will further or support the work of the charity and, with that in mind, set clear and measurable objectives. A political activity might be highly successful in achieving the objective of raising public awareness, or of encouraging the public to support the work of the charity, even if it does not lead to an immediate change of law or government policy. Not all political activity will be successful. It is therefore important for trustees to be able to explain their charity's decision to engage in campaigning or political activity, and to set objectives for the campaign which have a reasonable likelihood of success, as well as making sure that they have monitored progress towards them during the implementation phase of the campaign.

When developing objectives, Trustees should be aware of and, where appropriate, follow good practice (some sources of information on good practice can be found under section I, Further Information and Advice).

Evaluating and managing risks: Trustees are responsible for identifying and reviewing the major risks to which a charity is exposed, and for putting in place systems to mitigate these risks. Some types of campaigning and political activity, particularly those that have a high public profile, have the potential both to enhance and to damage the charity's reputation, and also to compromise its independence. This means that charities need to identify and manage the possible risks involved; it does not mean that they have to avoid all risks.

As part of its assessment of the overall risks and benefits of the activity, a charity should consider:

  • the risk that the activity may not be effective, or that the charity will be drawn into activities that are outside its purposes;
  • the costs and benefits of engaging in a particular campaign;
  • ways of approaching the campaign;
  • the risks attached to the campaign, and how these might best be managed; these include public perceptions of the charity’s independence, for example if a charity is supporting or opposing a policy that is also advocated by a political party;
  • the strategy for delivering the campaign; and
  • how best to evaluate the campaign's success and impact.

Trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member (in this context we mean personal or party political views).

Trustees should also ensure that they have an adequate level of knowledge about their donors. Trustees should be alert to the risk that, very occasionally, a donor may have an ulterior motive for giving money to their charity that could be unconnected with the charity’s work, and which could adversely affect the charity’s reputation. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of trustees to be satisfied that a donation is in the best interests of the charity.

Reputational risk: Trustees will also need to consider the impact of the proposed campaigning or political activity for the charity's reputation. A charity's independence and reputation must be protected, and trustees will need, as part of their overall campaign strategy, to consider arrangements to protect the charity's reputation.

Balance of risks and benefits: Overall, trustees need to be reasonably convinced that the likely benefits of campaigning outweigh the costs and risks. That involves assessing the likelihood of a successful outcome. The trustees must ask themselves:

  • Will this really further or support the work of the charity?
  • Is it worth the effort and resources involved?

If they can answer yes to both questions, they can confidently go ahead.

Monitoring impact and success: Monitoring and evaluating the success of a campaign should be built into a campaign strategy from the outset. They are a key means of ensuring that resources are being used wisely, and of contributing to the effectiveness of future campaigns.

Consultation: In seeking to influence legislation or public policy a charity may consider consulting with its key stakeholders, and possibly with members of the public. It might, for example, arrange consultative meetings in order to test the views of its beneficiaries before supporting changes to legislation and public policy. Such consultation is not, however, a formal requirement. The main consideration for charity trustees is that they have a clear understanding of the ways in which the activity will further or support the work of the charity.

Further information

See our website for information about risk management for charities.

Where a political activity or linked campaign does not have a realistic end date, it has the potential to be viewed as a political purpose, and could call into question the propriety of the activity, or ultimately the charitable status of the charity.

The key decision for trustees is whether the political activity supports their charity’s purpose to an extent that justifies the resources used. Trustees’ knowledge of their charity means that they are well placed to decide whether a particular activity is likely to be an effective way of supporting the charity’s purposes. As well as making an informed decision, trustees must be able to explain the reasoning behind it. They also need to be able to counter any criticisms that may arise – for instance that the change in the law which they sought to influence was too remote a possibility to have been achieved, or that the trustees were pursuing an agenda linked, or perceived to be linked, to their personal political views. Trustees must always have regard to their responsibility to use charitable funds and assets wisely, and only in furtherance or support of the charity’s purposes.

G. Campaigning: getting it right

This section is aimed at charities that have already decided to campaign or work in the political arena. There are a range of detailed questions and issues that may arise, along with the need to comply with charity law, and other laws and regulations. If the answer to your question is not here, we are always available to help and advise – see the final section of this guidance for contact details.

G1. What civil and criminal laws apply to charity campaign and political activity?

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The short answer

Where a charity engages in campaigning and political activity, trustees must be aware of and act in accordance with legal and regulatory requirements which have general application.

In more detail

The Advertising Standard Authority: Campaigning charities should be aware of the work of both the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and also the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP). The ASA is the independent, self-regulatory body for both broadcast and non-broadcast advertisements, sales promotions and direct marketing in the UK. The ASA administers the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (The CAP Code) to ensure that advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful. Since 1993 this Code has applied to charities and pressure groups. As a matter of good practice, charities should take all reasonable steps to comply with the ASA Code. The BCAP administers the Radio Advertising Standards Code, and the TV Advertising Standards Code is jointly administered by the BCAP and the ASA.

Breaches of the ASA or BCAP Codes: A serious breach of the Codes, or persistent breaches, by a charity might be an indicator of underlying mismanagement or maladministration of the charity’s affairs, and as such require us to take regulatory action.

Other legislation: As well as the general legal and regulatory requirements which we set out in our guidance for charities, trustees will also need to consider more general requirements. These include, for example:

  • The Communications Act 2003, particularly for charities considering using broadcast advertising. The Act prohibits political advertising in the broadcast media. The definition of ‘political advertising’ includes advertising aimed at influencing public opinion on matters of ‘public controversy’.
  • The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, particularly for charities organising a demonstration about an issue; the Act places new restrictions on campaigning, including demonstrations.
  • Other legal requirements, including the civil law concerning defamation (slander and libel) and the criminal law concerning incitement.

Further information

The CAP Code also includes a list of statutes and regulations affecting advertising and promotions in England and Wales. Further information about the ASA and the CAP Code can be found at www.asa.org.uk

G2. What methods can a charity use to campaign?

The short answer

A charity may use any reasonable method to campaign, so long as it is lawful, and an effective use of charitable resources.

In more detail

There are many forms of activity that charities use to deliver campaigns, and these are changing and developing all the time. This section covers some of the issues that charities should consider, and provides guidance on some of the methods used.

Use of campaign materials: Irrespective of whether a charity is engaging the support of the general public, or of a local community, it is free to use whatever lawful method of communication it believes to be appropriate to its campaign.

Explaining the charity’s position: Sometimes a charity will choose to set out a full explanation of its position and reasons for the campaign, in order to gain support for it. There is no specific legal or regulatory requirement for the full position to be set out in all campaign materials. Many forms of communication used for campaigning work, for example a newspaper advertisement limited by its size, or a restricted time slot on television or radio, will make it impractical to do so.

New technologies: New and innovative techniques for effective campaigning are developing all the time. For example, internet campaigns are now commonplace and the use of mobile phone text messaging facilities is an increasingly popular means of engaging the support of campaigners. In this fast-changing environment, charities should seek specialist advice if they are in any doubt about the legality, propriety or indeed cost-effectiveness, of their proposed campaign or activity.

Mobilising support: A charity can provide its supporters, or members of the public, with material to send to Members of Parliament, Welsh Assembly Members, councillors, central government, or the local authority, provided that, if requested, it can justify and demonstrate that a considered decision was made to engage in the activity and there is a rationale for using the chosen material.

G3. Can a charity use emotive or controversial material in its campaigns?

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The short answer

Yes – charities can use emotive material in their campaigns, but only where this is justified in the context of the aims of the campaign. Such material must be factually accurate and have a well-founded evidence base. Charities must not break the law, and should observe the relevant Codes in this area.

In more detail

Emotive campaigns: Charities working in areas which rouse strong emotions in the public may decide that they are willing to accept the risks of undertaking a campaign which poses significant risks because of the potential benefits the campaign might bring, and which might include:

  • greater public understanding (and perhaps increased donations);
  • a change in behaviour; or
  • a change in government attitudes towards the issue.

Example: A national animal welfare charity ran a long campaign to secure a ban on hunting with dogs. This was controversial, but we accepted that both the campaign objective and the means adopted (which included emotive advertising) were legitimate for an animal welfare charity.

Campaign material: Many charities, by the nature of their work and the issues they deal with, will raise issues which some people find emotive. Such charities' campaign materials will frequently have an emotive content, and this is perfectly acceptable so long as it has a well-founded evidence base and is factually accurate. However, trustees will need to consider the particular risks of using emotive or controversial materials, which may be significant because of the risk to public perception of the charity. These risks will need to be weighed up against the potential benefits which might include enhanced public understanding and a change in attitude towards an issue.

G4. Should a charity carry out research to back up a campaign?

The short answer

Sometimes charities choose to use research to support and strengthen a campaign or political activity, although there is no requirement to do so. The key point is that any claims made in support of a campaign should be well founded. Charities may use their resources to carry out or commission research, so long as trustees assure themselves of its quality and validity.

In more detail

As part of their campaigning and political activity charities sometimes use research in order to inform and educate the public, or to support and inform a policy position and add weight to any influencing activities. The type of research used varies according to the nature of a campaign, for example, whether the research is to support an education and awareness-raising campaign, or to back up and add weight to a campaign to change law or policy.

In carrying out research, or endorsing research carried out by other organisations, charities should ensure that the research is properly conducted using robust and objective research methods. For some campaigns trustees might choose to commission independent research – say from an academic institution or a research company – to ensure that the figures and statistics they use in a campaign are verified, and therefore also perceived to be objective. There is no requirement to commission independent research, or to use research to support a campaign, and many smaller charities do not have the resources to do so. The key point for any charity is the need for any campaign to be well founded and effective, and sometimes the use of research will be the best way of ensuring this.

G5. Can a charity use its premises for campaigning?

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The short answer

Generally, a charity may use its own premises in support of any charitable activity, including its own campaigning. There are certain restrictions on the use of charity premises for political purposes.

In more detail

Village halls: A local or national charity whose purpose includes the provision of premises (such as a community association or village hall) to community groups can allow its premises to be used by local political or campaigning groups but only on the same terms as other non-commercial user organisations. Such charities should not generally discriminate between organisations on the basis of the views they hold. Although use of this kind is permitted in furtherance of the charity’s purpose, it does not constitute political activity by the charity.

Hiring out premises: In order to raise funds, local charities of all types may permit non-charitable organisations to use their premises on commercial terms when the premises are not being used for the charity’s charitable purposes. This could include local political and campaigning groups, candidates for election, and local Members of Parliament or councillors who wish to hold surgeries with their constituents. Again, lettings of this kind do not constitute political activity by the charity.

Turning down unsuitable organisations: A charity may decline to allow a particular organisation or individual to use its premises because the organisation’s aims or an individual’s activities would conflict with the charity’s purposes, or because of the risk of public disorder or of alienating the charity’s beneficiaries or supporters (for example, an organisation which was associated with racist beliefs).

Election meetings: Trustees of certain local charities (notably schools) may be required to allow election candidates to use the premises of their charities for the holding of election meetings free of charge under the Representation of the People Act 1983. We have published separate guidance for charities to use during the period between the announcement of an election, and the date on which an election is held.

Further information

We are currently working on separate guidance outlining the implications and provisions of electoral law for charities. This guidance will be made available on our website.

G6. Can a charity work with other organisations on a campaign?

The short answer

Yes – a charity may work with other organisations to further or support its own charitable purposes. There are certain risks to this, and trustees need to be aware of the risks and manage them.

In more detail

Lobbying coalitions: It is open to charities to form coalitions, alliances and consortia for the purpose of lobbying MPs and government for changes to the law. It is not realistic to expect that everything that a campaigning alliance does, particularly if it has a large membership, will fit with every one of its members’ charitable purposes and there are, therefore, some important considerations.

Examples: A coalition of disability charities successfully lobbied for the introduction of new rights and protections for disabled people in the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2006.

Many charities set up to combat poverty joined the campaigning coalition, Make Poverty History. Regardless of any changes achieved in government policy, the campaign has successfully raised awareness and popular support for the idea that there should be a more strategic and high-profile attempt to abolish poverty.

Factors to consider: A charity wishing to participate in such an alliance should consider whether:

  • there is a reasonable expectation that the arrangement will help to further or support the charity’s purposes;
  • any expenditure can be justified as being an effective use of resources; and
  • the risks of participating are outweighed by the benefits; in particular, if some of the political activity that an alliance may engage in does not fit with a charity’s own charitable purposes, the charity will need to consider how best to manage any risks to its reputation, and its work. The charity may also need to consider whether to withdraw, at least temporarily, from the alliance unless there is some way of isolating the charity from those activities.

There may also be times when a charity is not able to support an alliance on a particular issue, but does not want to damage its relations with the alliance. Here, the charity will need to consider the best means of managing this risk.

Working with non-charities: There may be some issues which generate interest and support from a range of different bodies, not all of them charitable. Sometimes alliances will consist of representatives from a number of charities, non-charitable organisations, individuals and perhaps representatives of a political party. In these circumstances, the considerations outlined above also apply.

Leakage of funds: A charity working with other organisations must guard against the possible ‘leakage’ of its charitable funds – meaning that the money it has contributed to a coalition or alliance must not be spent for purposes other than those of the charity.

G7. Can a charity campaign or carry out political activity overseas?

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The short answer

Yes – the basic position is the same for charities, wherever they work. There are additional factors that trustees will need to take into account when they are considering overseas campaign and political activity.

In more detail

In circumstances where a charity is working internationally, and is seeking to promote any change in legislation or public policy, it must satisfy itself that such a change will contribute to its charitable purpose. As with changes to UK law, campaigning for a change to certain legislation cannot be a charitable purpose in its own right.

Depending upon their charitable purposes, some types of charity may be more likely to campaign or engage in political activity overseas, for example charities for the prevention or relief of poverty, the advancement of religion, or the advancement of human rights. In some instances, there may be a particular need to consider the interface between domestic, overseas and international laws. This is an area which will be explored further, as the Commission draws up supplementary guidance on public benefit, and when it updates its guidance Charities working internationally.

Example: An organisation set up to protect the environment launches a campaign to persuade the Government of an overseas country to increase its restrictions on tree logging because of concern about the effects of deforestation. This is acceptable political activity for the charity as it supports its charitable purposes.

Example: An organisation is set up primarily to campaign against the use of the death penalty for adultery in certain countries. This organisation cannot be a UK charity, as no UK court can be competent to reach a decision on the public benefit it will provide. However, a charity working more generally in the field of human rights would be able to undertake such a campaign, subject to the usual considerations, and alongside wider activities aimed at improving the conditions in such countries.

Further information

Our guidance Charities working internationally, sets out specific legal requirements and recommended good practice for charities whose work is either wholly or partly international or overseas based.

G8. Can a charity organise demonstrations?

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The short answer

Yes – a charity may in principle organise different kinds of direct action in support of charitable campaign activity. There are legal requirements, and there might also be particular risks that trustees need to take into account in doing so.

In more detail

As part of a campaign, charities may wish to organise, promote or participate in some kind of demonstration or direct action. This might involve simply the provision of information in a public place, such as handing out leaflets in order to raise awareness. In this case, the guidance on the use of campaign materials outlined in section G3 will apply.

Further considerations apply if a charity wishes to participate in an event and do more than just provide information. Such events might include participation in marches, rallies, or peaceful picketing. Such participation might offer significant opportunities for publicising a charity’s position on an issue, and further its purposes, or show the extent of public support for the issue. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 will be relevant to charities carrying out such activity.

The risks: Equally, a charity will also need to balance these potential benefits against any possible risks from engaging in the event. For example, there will always be some people who regard any involvement by a charity in events of this kind as inappropriate. This view could pose risks for the reputation of the charity. Therefore, at the outset it is important to assess the likelihood and scale of any risk of damaging public support for the charity.

Public order: Events such as demonstrations and rallies can also present real problems of control for a charity, because of the complexities of public order legislation. The nature of public demonstrations means that there is a greater risk of an offence being committed by representatives of the charity, or others taking part, compared with other campaigning activities. For this reason the charity should consider carefully what steps it can take to minimise or mitigate the risk of these offences occurring, for example through careful preparation and good liaison with the police or other authorities.

Working with other organisations: Charities taking part in events involving a number of organisations should consider and manage the risks of participating alongside organisations who do not share the aims of the event organisers. A charity should also seek to ensure that any event is fully under the control of the organiser (whether or not this is the charity itself) and peaceful.

G9. Can a charity organise a public petition?

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The short answer

Yes – a charity may organise a petition in support of its charitable campaign activity. There are some legal and good practice requirements that trustees must consider before doing so.

In more detail

A charity may organise and present a petition to either House of Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or to any body of national or local government. The petition, or supporting material provided by the charity, should make it clear what the purpose of the petition is, so that those individuals considering supporting it know what they are signing up to. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 will be relevant to charities carrying out such activity.

The charity should also be able to demonstrate, on request, that the petition’s authenticity can be verified.

H. When problems arise …

This short section is about what happens when a charity, for whatever reason, becomes involved in campaigning or political activity that may not be compatible with its charitable status. We should stress that serious problems are rare, and that most problems are usually dealt with informally. Trustees who have considered this guidance, and acted in good faith, should have few worries.

H1. How does the Commission deal with complaints about a charity’s campaigning or political activity?

The short answer

We have fair and open procedures for evaluating and dealing with all complaints received about charities, including those about campaigns. Where complainants simply disagree with the political or campaign stance taken by a charity, we will not generally become involved. As the charity regulator, our central concern is that charities should operate at all times within their own charitable purposes.

In more detail

In the last five years we have upheld very few complaints against registered charities for undertaking political activity.

Controversial campaigns: Campaigns are frequently controversial and we are aware that members of the public sometimes complain to us about a charity campaign simply because they disagree with the line that the charity has taken. Some people complain that the charity is engaged in political activity at all; others complain about the tone or accuracy of what the charity has said or that the charity is bringing itself into disrepute by engaging in controversy.

Other regulators: We will refer some complainants to another regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), for example, or the Office of Communications (Ofcom).

Our concerns: In practice, the cases that are most likely to be of concern to us are those where it seems that the campaign is not sufficiently related to the purposes of the charity. We will be most concerned in cases where it seems that the trustees may have adopted a political purpose for the charity, whether deliberately or by mistake.

Further information

(Please see our guidance Complaints about Charities (CC47) for more details.)

H2. What will happen if a charity breaks the rules or the law?

The short answer

Where a charity, whether deliberately or by mistake, appears to be carrying out campaign activity that is not sufficiently connected to its purposes, we will look into this. We will generally aim to resolve such situations informally, but may need to take regulatory action where there has been misuse of charity resources or misconduct.

In more detail

Regulatory action: If, for whatever reason, a charity engages in campaigning and political activity that contravenes legal or regulatory requirements, there is a range of actions available to us. Any action taken will depend on the circumstances of the case, the scale and nature of the activity in question, and the extent to which the charity has sought to comply with these guidelines.

The remedies available: Where a complaint is justified, we have a wide range of remedial measures available to us. In practice, we are likely to give robust advice for the future as the most appropriate and proportionate response, rather than using any of those remedial powers. We are more likely to take a flexible approach where any breach of the law has been inadvertent, and the trustees have – in our view - been acting in good faith. However, where trustees have deliberately misused substantial charitable funds for improper political activity, they may be liable to make good the loss to the charity.

Removal from the register of charities: Exceptionally, in an extreme case, we might remove an organisation from the register if it was clear that it was established for a political rather than a charitable purpose.

Example: A charity with objects to establish young people in life funded a newspaper advertisement for an anti-war demonstration. We considered this a breach of trust, as the link between the advertisement and the charity’s purpose was too distant. The trustees accepted this and, subject to certain undertakings, we did not pursue further regulatory action.

I. Further information and advice

Charity Commission guidance

Some other sources of information and advice

  • Good Campaigns Guide, Brian Lamb, 1997, NCVO. ISBN 071991504X
  • Campaigning in collaboration, Sarah Shimmin and Gareth Coles, 2007, NCVO’s Collaborative Working Unit and Campaigning Effectiveness. ISBN: 978-0-7199-1704-2
  • CharityComms is the professional body for charity sector communications, supporting communications staff and volunteers in UK charities and NGOs of every size. It provides a platform for debate on issues that affect charity communications, provides advice for charity communicators, offers a forum for networking and sharing good practice, and create benchmarks and standards for charity communicators. See www.charitycomms.org.uk
  • The Campaigning Effectiveness Programme at NCVO. This programme is a central resource for influencing, advocacy and campaigning in the voluntary and community sector. It supports organisations of all sizes that want to increase the impact of their campaigns, by communicating best practice principles and giving people the skills they need to put these into practice. Email: campaigning@ncvo-vol.org.uk Website: www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/ce
  • The Campaigning Handbook, Mark Lattimer, 2nd ed. (2000) DSC. ISBN 1900360632
  • The Compact www.compactvoice.org.uk
  • The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, 2005 www.opsi.gov.uk/acts

J. Appendix

Campaigning and Political Activity: A Checklist for Trustees

1 What is/are the objective(s) of this campaign?

2 How would this campaign or political activity further or support the purposes of the charity?

3 Are any of the objectives of this campaign outside the purposes of the charity?

4 Are any of the activities party political?

5 How likely is it that the campaign would achieve its objective(s)?

6 Is all campaign material factually accurate?

7 What evidence is there to support the answers to questions 2-5 (eg beneficiary consultation, a credible evidence base)?

8(a) What other activities could the charity undertake that would achieve the same objectives?

8(b) In what ways would these other activities be more or less effective than campaigning?

9(a) What would be the duration and financial cost of the campaign?

9(b) Would campaigning become the charity’s only activity, and if so, for how long?

10(a) Would the campaign be undertaken in partnership with other organisations?

10(b) If so, how would financial and partnership arrangements be managed?

11(a) What risks would the charity be exposed to in undertaking this campaign?

  • Risk of acting outside charity’s purposes/misuse of charity funds?
  • Breach of legal/good practice requirements on campaigning?
  • Costs and benefits?
  • Risk of failure to meet objectives?
  • Financial risk?
  • Reputational risk?
  • Risk to independence?
  • Unintended consequences?
  • Other?

11(b) How could these risks be mitigated?

12 How would the charity monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign?

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