Opinion

Charities and campaigning

15th August 2017

Charities and campaigning

Campaigning and lobbying are both a part of the work some charities carry out, and historically charities have used these activities to encourage social change. You only have to look at the work of the Cadbury family in Birmingham to see a legacy of social welfare and reform. Today issues such as social care are still a hotbed for campaigning by charities but campaigning is a risk area for charities if not handled appropriately.

The interaction between charity law, electoral law and the ‘Lobbying Act’ (Transparency of Lobbying Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014) mean the rules around campaigning and lobbying are complex, especially when political activity is involved (defined as securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions of government or other public bodies).

Given the current climate and level of media scrutiny, charities must be clear on their responsibilities as there are serious penalties for non-compliance. Heavy fines can be imposed and such action can damage a charity’s reputation and impact on stakeholder relationships.

A recent example saw Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth fined for breaching the Lobbying Act. The fines totalled £31k for activities carried out during the 2015 General Election, including failure to register with the Electoral Commission as non-party campaigners (Greenpeace) and late registration (Friends of the Earth).

Guidance is available from the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission and we would recommend taking advice at an early stage, whilst always being aware that activities outside of the rules could be seen as misuse of charity funds.

A breach of charity law or electoral law may also trigger regulatory action by the Charity Commission to protect public trust and confidence. This is highlighted by recent reports that the Charity Commission dealt with 41 cases relating to charity campaigning and political activity during the recent General Election and took action six times.

As a starting point, organisations established to pursue political purposes cannot be charities. It does not mean that a charity cannot undertake political activity or campaign as long as it seeks to further its charitable purposes, it is permitted by its governing documents, it is never party-political and the charity maintains its independence and political neutrality.

Registration with the Electoral Commission is required if certain levels of spending are reached on “regulated campaign activity” in a “regulated period” - £20,000 in England and £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Any campaign is a public-facing activity and should be carefully considered before being undertaken. It is a fundamental duty of a trustee to act in the charity’s best interest and it needs to be carefully weighed up whether any campaigning or political activity would justify the resources used as well as any possible impact on its reputation.

We would certainly recommend a review of all campaigning material and media presence to ensure it is non-partisan, objective and justified in relation to its objects.

This is a complex issue, and if there is any uncertainly, we would recommend taking professional advice to avoid any risk.

 

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