Charity Activism- when does charitable activity cross the line into politics?

Charity Activism- when does charitable activity cross the line into politics?

On the 12th October 2022 the Charity Commission published its revised guidance 'Charity Political Activity and Campaigning'.  The guidance makes it clear that political activity and campaigning in furtherance of a charity’s purposes can be acceptable. But there are boundaries. Such activity must be:

  • In the best interest of the charity
  • Not prohibited by the governing document
  • Not be the main purpose of the charity (as a political purpose cannot be a charitable purpose)
  • Free from political bias – e.g., the charity cannot fund a particular political candidate or party.

In essence, a charity cannot have a political purpose or undertake political activity that is not relevant to its purposes. For example, an organisation set up to change a particular law cannot be a charity as that is a political purpose. Yet, a charity that has a broad charitable purpose (such as promoting equality or human rights) can carry out political activities aimed at changing the law to enshrine those rights, provided that is one of the mechanisms employed to achieve the purpose and is not the only one. The guidance makes it clear that you cannot ‘pretend’ to be a charity if you are in fact pursuing a single political objective.

Trustees’ duties have not changed.

Trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the personal or party-political views of any individual trustee or staff member.

The key issue for charity trustees is the need to ensure that political activity is not, and does not become, the reason for the charity’s existence. It must remain a tool they use to achieve their charitable purposes.

Is the latest guidance clear enough?

To better understand the parameters of what is, and is not, permissible, it is necessary to look at the definitions of what constitutes 'campaigning' and 'political activity' according to the commission.

  • Campaigning: The commission uses this word to refer to awareness-raising and to educate or involve the public by mobilising their support on a particular issue, or to influence or change public attitudes. It also uses it to refer to campaigning activity which aims to ensure that existing laws are observed. There is no limit on the extent to which charities can engage in campaigning in furtherance of their charitable purposes.
  • Political activity: political activity, as defined in the guidance, must only be undertaken by a charity in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. The commission uses 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.

Furthermore, political activity might include 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.

If political activity as defined becomes the only activity of the charity or its main activity, the charity might be viewed as being established for that political purpose and would be subject to intervention by the Commission.

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 can carry out its work.

This is a very complex area, and the guidance offers some real-life examples, but The Commission leaves it to the trustees (and their advisors) to determine whether a particular activity or campaign meets the guidance. The trustees must decide if it is a suitable activity that is likely to further the purposes of the charity. To help trustees we have condensed this into the following 3 essential decision-points.

Three Essential Points:

  1. The trustees may identify situations where carrying out political activity or campaigning is the best way to further the charity’s purpose. However, political activity (as defined) must not become the reason for the charity’s existence. We recommend adopting a political activity and campaigning policy setting out what the charity will and will not become involved in or carry out.
  1. When deciding whether to engage in political activities or campaigning, Trustees should:
  • act within the charity’s governing document
  • act independently and only in the charity’s interests
  • be sufficiently informed (e.g., on the nature of the campaign, the risks, the degree to which the political activity directly supports the charitable purposes; and the potential impact), taking any advice needed
  • take account only of the relevant factors (e.g., setting aside their personal views)
  • manage any conflicts of interest
  • make a decision that is within a range of decisions that a reasonable body of trustees could make.
  1. Where any political activity or campaigning is undertaken, Trustees must be able to show that:
  • The activity will (as far as can be judged) further the charity’s purpose and will be in its best interests
  • the charity will be able to remain independent of party-political bias
  • there is justification for the resources needed and that this will not unreasonably negatively impact the charity’s ability to directly deliver its purposes
  • the potential benefits outweigh the risks (including to charity personnel and future funding)
  • there is justification for any use of controversial material, and consideration made of the associated risks and legal requirements
  • the charity can comply with any other laws that apply, for example on advertising, slander, and libel.

Do contact us if you need advice.

The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are provided for general information purposes only. The contents are copyright of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams LLP. All rights reserved.