Political activity and campaigning by charities

Political activity and campaigning by charities

As a trustee you are responsible for making sure your charity follows the rules on political activity and campaigning.

So, make sure that any staff and volunteers working on campaigns understand the rules. Even if you delegate these activities, the responsibility remains yours.

What we mean by ‘political activity’

The Charity Commission uses the term ‘political activity’ to describe activities or campaigning to change or influence policies or decisions taken by:

  • national, devolved, local or overseas government
  • public bodies including international organisations such as the UN and World Bank, and national or local organisations such as regulators or NHS Trusts

For example, a charity for homeless people would be engaging in political activity if it argued for a change in the policy and law on how social housing is allocated because of the impact of the current system on homeless people.

And a charity with the purpose of protecting the environment would be engaging in political activity if it began to persuade an overseas government to reduce the amount of tree logging and deforestation in their country.

You may work with different people to take part in political activity, such as:

  • politicians, political candidates or public servants
  • the public to obtain support or opposition for a change

The rules on political activity

Charities can take part in political activity that supports their purpose and is in their best interests.

There may be situations where carrying out political activity is the best way for trustees to support their charity’s purpose. However, political activity must not become the reason for the charity’s existence.

Charities must remain independent and must not give their support to a political party.

Some charities have a power in their governing document explaining how they can take part in political activity. You do not need a specific power but it can help if political activity is a key part of your work, for example for certain human rights charities.

Some charities have restrictions in their governing document preventing political activity. Check your governing document for any such restrictions.

Engaging in political activity

Deciding to engage in political activity

You can engage in political activity, but this must support the delivery of your charity’s purpose.

For example, the trustees of a charity whose purpose is to support people with mental health problems could decide to campaign for greater funding of NHS mental health services to help increase the number of people receiving mental health care when they need it.

Trustees of a charity whose purpose is to run an animal sanctuary and rehome stray animals could not decide to campaign for human rights overseas, which although they consider a worthwhile cause, does not further the charity’s purpose of running an animal sanctuary.

To help you make your decision, you should:

  • act within your charity’s governing document
  • act honestly and only in your charity’s interests
  • be sufficiently informed, taking any advice you need
  • take account only of the relevant factors
  • manage any conflicts of interest
  • make a decision that is within a range of decisions that a reasonable body of trustees could make

And use these principles when deciding how you want to engage and when reviewing the progress the charity is making.

Managing the charity responsibly

You must also regularly consider the impact of your political activity on the charity’s assets including its reputation, especially when it might attract significant public interest or criticism. The potential for criticism can be mitigated by the charity ensuring that it conducts its activity with respect and tolerance.

For all political activity, but especially high risk activities, make sure you can show that:

  • it will further your charity’s purpose and will be in its best interests
  • the charity will be able to remain independent of party political bias
  • you can justify the resources needed
  • the potential benefits outweigh the risks
  • you can justify any use of controversial material and you have considered the associated risks and legal requirements
  • you can comply with any other laws that apply, for example on advertising, slander and libel

If things go wrong

If something goes seriously wrong, the Commission or the courts may look into how you managed the charity, made your decisions, and complied with your trustee duties.

The Commission does not expect you to be legal experts, but we will consider what you could have reasonably known or found out when you made your decisions. Follow the principles above and keep written records to help show how you reached your decisions.

Working with politicians

Charities can support a policy that is supported by a political party or candidate. You can work with political parties or candidates to influence their decisions, provided this supports your charity’s purpose and your charity remains independent.

For example, you could:

  • have meetings with your Member of Parliament (MP) or other political figures
  • take part in policy discussions at a party conference
  • ask an MP or local councillor to speak at the launch of a new project by your charity

Remain independent by:

  • asking political figures you engage with not to promote party political messages at your events or premises
  • seeking to engage equally with all major political parties

If your charity always engages with only one party or person this could call into question whether your charity is politically neutral.

Charities must never:

  • provide money or other resources to anyone who is standing as a candidate
  • promote a particular candidate or political party

Be especially careful if you are carrying out political activity in the period between an election being announced and held. You can find more information in our guidance about Charities, Elections and Referendums.

Other campaigning

Charities often take part in other campaigning that is not political activity. This type of campaigning must also further your charity’s purpose.

It could include educating the public or raising awareness on a particular issue. For example, a health charity could promote the benefits of a balanced diet.

It could also include making sure that existing policies and laws are followed, without seeking to change them. For example, a disability charity could campaign to make sure children get everything they are entitled to under existing laws.

Often political activity and campaigning can be different parts of an ongoing focus on a particular issue or charitable purpose.

Many of the rules that apply to carrying out political activity also apply to campaigning. You can find more information in our guidance on Campaigning and political activity.

Our Executive Members

By @Cobseo 55 years ago

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