Charities should speak truth to power but campaign responsibly, Rob Wilson says

The civil society minister tells the NCVO/BWB Trustee Conference that the line between proper and improper campaigning is sometimes not clear enough

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson
  • This story has been amended - see last paragraph

The government needs charities to "speak truth to power" and help inform policies, but charity campaigning should be carried out responsibly, Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, told yesterday’s NCVO/BWB Trustee Conference in London.

Giving a short address at the drinks reception at the end of the conference, Wilson said charities should speak truth to power and had a role in informing policy and government decisions. "In government, we need your help," he said.

But he said that charity campaigning should be handled responsibly and that, although charities could campaign in support of their objects, they should not be drawn into the wrong type of campaigning, support political parties or appear to be party political.

Wilson said that the line between proper and improper campaigning was "a distinction that is sometimes not made well enough".

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the conference host the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, told Wilson after his speech: "I was particularly reassured by your comments about speaking truth to power."

Earlier in the day, William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, told the conference he believed most charities understood what they could and could not do in terms of campaigning. He said: "Charities can campaign for their purposes, but they can’t campaign for parties, and usually people understand that. I think charities need to be careful not to push the envelope, but coming up to an election it is more tempting."

Giving the keynote speech earlier in the day, Philip Kirkpatrick, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, said: "There is a big move at the moment to try to limit the extent to which charities engage in public discourse."

Christine Rigby, a senior consultant at BWB, told the conference in another session that she did not understand the reference to the "improper politicisation" of charities in the commission’s new statement of regulatory approach, contained in its last annual report. She said: "I’m not quite sure what that means."

Wilson also told conference delegates that he had learnt a lot from his first six weeks in the job. "The insight into the inner workings of the sector has really impressed me," he said.

He urged charities to consider whether social investment could offer them opportunities. He said: "For those charities yet to venture into the social investment space, my message is do keep an open mind as to what it can offer you as an investor or as an investee."

Wilson told the conference, which marked the start of Trustees' Week, that he had been impressed to see the work of the National Citizen Service. "Perhaps an unexpected benefit of the NCS will be to encourage more young people to become trustees," he said.

  • The story orginally contained a paragraph drawing a comparison between Wilson's remarks and those of his predecessor Brooks Newmark about charities "sticking to their knitting"

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