If your campaigning is done within the law, just keep calm and carry on

It is understandable that organisations may feel wary about political bias, but the rules are clearly defined writes Brian Lamb

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

Some trustees see campaigning as a risky activity involving the danger of political bias and consequent complaints to the Charity Commission.

But the reality is that the number of complaints to the Commission about charity campaigning is low compared with the number of complaints about fundraising.

When there have been complaints about campaigning, they have cut across the political spectrum, and those perceived to be aligned with both left and right-wing causes have been challenged.

So it was unusual to see the Family and Childcare Trust being warned by the commission to maintain its political independence after a complaint from a Conservative MP that it was using social media to carry out party political activity.

The charity was accused of bias for using the same hashtags for a campaign on childcare allowances as those used by the Labour shadow minister. The charity is disputing the accusations.

Defining political bias can often be confusing for staff and trustees. There is an element of "I know an elephant when I see one" in this debate, but it is not always that simple - especially in the digital age, when a hashtag might or might not stand in proxy for a political affiliation. Television documentaries such as Channel 4's Benefits Street are sometimes coopted into ministerial keynote speeches, and comments on them might also be seen as taking sides with government or opposition. Indeed, much of the debate about parts of the lobbying bill has centred on the distinction between party and non-party campaigning in the run-up to an election.

Clear guidelines

The guidelines for charities on campaigning outside an election period are clear. The fundamental distinction is between political activity designed to influence government, which is fine, and party political activity - the support of a particular party - which is not. The distinctions become more difficult when it seems that charities are supporting particular policies. But the guidance is also clear on this.

Charities can support a policy of a political party or have policies that coincide with those of a political party, as long as these are to further its charitable aims and not to express support for a political party. Charity campaigners must also ensure that any campaigning activity does not expose the organisation to accusations of political bias that could affect perceptions of its independence. It seems this last point might have triggered the concern of the commission, and its warning.

The role of charity campaigning is being more contested than for many years, according to the latest report from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, so it is understandable that organisations will feel wary about the political risk of campaigning.

But the panel points to the power of the sector's brand and knowledge that has been shown in its campaigning over the lobbying bill. The sector should also take heart from the recent nfpSynergy survey, which showed the public overwhelmingly supports political campaigning.

The sector needs to be clear about the legal basis of its right to campaign and ensure it acts within that. Then it should keep calm and carry on.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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