Board Talk: What is the role of trustees in charitable campaigns?

Caroline Cooke and Alex Swallow debate the role of the board in campaigning issues

Board Talk
Board Talk

CC: It is for trustees to make the decision on when to campaign. Before making it, they must be clear about how the campaign will further or support the organisation's charitable purposes. They must also be mindful of the need to protect the charity's independence and reputation. If the charity has paid staff, they may deliver a campaign, but the decision to go ahead is for trustees. It is important that staff keep their trustees well informed about campaigning activity once a decision has been taken.

Trustees might consider keeping a risk register, including the campaigning work in their business plan and keeping minutes of meetings where decisions have been taken. Some types of campaigning and political activity, particularly those that have a high public profile, have the potential either to enhance or to damage the charity's reputation. Charities need to identify and manage risks, rather than completely avoiding them. It is also important that trustees think about how they will monitor and evaluate the campaign's success and impact.

AS: I agree that the decision is for the trustees to take, but I would add a couple of things. First, the smallest charities often have no staff whatsoever. This means that trustees must keep in close contact with any volunteers. For example, if a small charity has volunteers running a local service and the trustees campaign on an issue that affects this service, they should make sure they consult with the volunteers to try to prevent disharmony.

The other important thing for small charities to consider is time. A piece of campaigning work could be consistent with governing documents, and debated and considered properly, yet the charity shouldn't proceed with it because it would take too much time away from other activities.

Caroline CookeCC: As with any activity, it is essential that trustees consider the resources available to them before embarking on a campaign. Deciding how much resource to dedicate to a campaign will depend in part of the seriousness of the issue. Campaigning to change a policy decision is defined as political activity in our guidance, and if that is all the charity does it will, over time, adopt a political purpose and could become a non-charitable organisation. Essentially, any political campaigning must be a means to an end and not become an end in itself.

Alex Swallow AS: I think charities should look at the guidance that is already out there and try to get some help and support if they need it. At the Small Charities Coalition, we get a lot of calls from people who need clarification on charity matters. We stress we are not legal experts, but we try to guide them to useful sources of information and give them the tools to make decisions themselves. It is also very useful for charities to consider whether they should be campaigning alone - perhaps there are other organisations that they can partner with on particular issues, either locally or nationally.

To give our own example, we have staff but we are simply too small to campaign on issues on our own, especially given that our main purpose is to provide services to our members. However, by working with other charities we are able to pool resources and expertise and get more attention focused on issues that we care about. Does the commission have a view on whether it is better for charities to campaign alongside each other?

CC: It is for charities themselves to decide what is best in terms of campaigning individually or together. Certainly, working with other charities can be very effective, although there are some additional issues to consider at the outset. For example, it is unlikely that a campaigning alliance will fit with every one of its members' charitable purposes. However, consortia working can be very effective and the Charity Commission certainly encourages collaborative working between charities.

AS: I think it is important that charities feel they can act independently when it's necessary. On a wider point, I think the public really likes to see collaboration between charities, especially those in related fields. This is certainly something that funders of all stripes are becoming increasingly demanding about.

Caroline Cooke is head of policy engagement and research at the Charity Commission

Alex Swallow is chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition and founder of Young Charity Trustees.


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