Expert view: When is charity work political?

Environmental Charity A spends £100,000 on a campaign to stop the development of a new runway at a regional airport and it is comfortably within Charity Commission guidelines on campaigning.

Environmental charity B spends exactly the same amount on the campaign but now has serious concerns that it has breached the guidelines. How can this be?

Charity B is a much smaller organisation and the expenditure means that, not for the first time, it spent more than half its income on trying to achieve its objectives. This means that it is in danger of falling foul of the 'dominant/ancillary' rule, which states that charities can engage in political activities only if these remain ancillary and do not become the long-term or dominant means of carrying out charitable purposes.

Campaigners thought the issue had effectively been dealt with when the Government published the third sector review, which said that "it is surely possible, in a well-run charity, for political activity to be 'dominant' within a charity and yet still enable it to further its charitable purpose.

"Provided that the ultimate purpose remains demonstrably a charitable one, the Government can see no objection, legal or other, to a charity pursuing that purpose wholly or mainly through political activities. Those running any charity have to justify its activities."

But there is a debate about what these intentions mean in practice. How can you spend money on campaigning, and over what period, without it becoming so dominant that it means your primary purpose has become political?

The commission has the unenviable task of defining "dominant". It may simply look at timescale and try to define a reasonable period. But as any campaigner knows, campaigns can last for years. At what point would pursuing one aim through political means constitute it becoming the dominant activity?

Alternatively, or in combination, you can look at the amount of money spent. But do we really want to define dominant as simply spending more than half your income on campaigning, rather than look at the overall context of the charity, its work and its public positioning? What would you count: total income, or only the proportion of voluntary income spent?

The essential unfairness of any of these approaches is that smaller organisations will be much more vulnerable to challenge than larger ones. Legislation could sort this out, ensuring political activity was redefined without altering the principle that charities should not have political objectives or support political parties.

- Brian Lamb is director of communications at the RNID and chair of the Campaign Effectiveness Group.

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