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What do charity trustees need to know about campaigning?

By Alice Neild 10 April 2024 5 minute read

A recent event hosted by NPC, in partnership with The Clothworkers’ Company, explored what charity trustees need to know about campaigning. The event was chaired by Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of the Quakers in Britain, and we were joined by Sanchita Hosali, CEO of the British Institute of Human Rights, and Suhan Rajkumar, a charity and campaigning lawyer at Bates Wells

As the general election edges closer, we’re entering a critical period for charity campaigning. Our State of the Sector survey found that the public want charities to be more outspoken and campaign on social issues – despite some politicians disagreeing. But for charities, this may not always feel easy due to uncertainty around how political they can be, and what constitutes overstepping the mark.  

During the event, our speakers outlined how charities can ensure that their campaigning is within the law.  

Don’t fear the law, know the law and be empowered by it

—Sanchita Hosali, the British Institute of Human Rights  

Where to start? 

All charitable activity must be in furtherance of your charity’s purposes, as set out in your governing document–so that’s where you should start. 

Our speakers recommended getting familiar with the Charity Commission’s guidance. There is also specific guidance for charities during the period between the announcement of an election, and the date on which an election is held. Such guidance should be present in every major board discussion about campaigning activity, and ideally, trustees should be referring to them.  

What constitutes ‘crossing the line’?  

While there is clear legal guidance around campaigning, and some things are prohibited–such as campaigning actively on matters unrelated or opposed to your charity’s purposes or endorsing a political partythere will always be some ambiguity in how things are interpreted.  

 Different organisations will have different approaches, voices, and tones and some organisations will need to be louder than others – and this is okay, as long as it aligns with your objectives.  

The so-called ‘Lobbying Act’  

Suhan dissected some of the concerns that charities may have around the election law general campaigning rules (often known as the Lobbying Act), which apply to every organisation (not just charities). Crucially, the Lobbying Act does not stop charities from campaigning in the run-up to a general election. However, it’s important to remember that if you’re campaigning in what’s known as the ‘regulated period’ (365 days before a general election polling day), and your spending on public-facing campaign material which could reasonably be seen as encouraging people to vote in a particular way (the ‘purpose test’) is going to exceed £10,000 across the UK, you will need to register with the Electoral Commission.  

If you would like to learn more about electoral campaigning laws, the Bates Wells guide to charity campaigning and a recent seminar delivered by Suhan contain useful information about this. 

5 top tips for charity campaigning and political activity  

  1. Your campaign must further your charitable purposes. Trustees have discretion but must be comfortable that a campaign will further the charity’s purposes on the basis of a clear and credible evidence base. Any political activity or campaign cannot become the sole aim of the charity.  
  2. Consider the tone of your campaign. Charities cannot be party political and must remain balanced. Just as important here is how your campaign is perceived by the public. Whilst the content of a campaign may not be party political, it could still be identified as a risk if the tone seems party political.  
  3. Know the law. The Charity Commissions guidance on campaigning and political activity always applies but the time before an election is particularly sensitive. Use the Commission’s Charities, Elections and Referendums’ guidance during this period. Remember, election law does not stop charities from campaigning – but you should consider whether you need to register with the Electoral Commission.    
  4. Manage the risk of your campaigning and understand the possible critiques. It is also useful to think about the potential risks of not campaigning.  
  5. Document your decision-making. Trustees play a role in supporting charities to anticipate criticisms their campaigns may receive, but identifying a risk doesn’t have to mean staying silent. The key point when carrying out political activity which is neutral and furthers your purposes, is to understand and mitigate any risks and document your approach.  

Whilst we still don’t know when the general election is going to be held, we do know that we are in the election period because it must take place by 28 January 2025–and many charities are well into their election campaigns. So now is the time for charities to reacquaint themselves with charity and electoral law.  

To catch up with this event, visit our YouTube channel. 

Our next free event for trustees will take place on 2 May 2024, where we’ll be looking at how trustees can centre lived experience.


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