Sue Tibballs: Closing the gap between campaigning rhetoric and guidance

For the Charity Commission’s guidance and words to align, boards must be able to codify when to show ‘respect and tolerance’ and when to shift tone

It feels as though we have been dancing around this territory for years now. Can charities be political? Can they campaign? When they do, should they engage with controversial or disputed issues? 

With social media guidance and its accompanying commentary published earlier this week, the answer is, finally and unequivocally, a firm yes.

Ever since charities were told to stick to the knitting by a Charity Commission board member in 2013, the regulator has repeatedly given with one hand and taken with the other. It has written one thing in guidance and said another in speeches and interviews. 

So it’s heartening to see the commission chair, Orlando Fraser, be very clear that charities can campaign, even on emotive or controversial issues. The latest guidance has taken on board many of the concerns raised by legal, regulatory and communications experts during the consultation – the commission has listened.

It still cannot resist making pronouncements on tone, though. At least the exhortation to speak with “respect and tolerance” is couched, in the chair’s public comments, in terms of taking down the temperature of online debate, rather than simply because we should all be nice. This all sounds very reasonable and, in most cases, I would heartily agree. 

But it is much easier to respect and tolerate opposing views if your mission is to promote healthy eating than if your job is to tackle racism or expose human rights abuses. And respect needs to flow both ways. 

Recent attacks by some politicians and media outlets have shown nothing but contempt for charities that take their role to challenge and “speak truth to power” seriously.

In social media, as in so many other aspects of what charities say in the public domain, one quickly comes up against nuance, context, resource and culture.

Navigating it all can be extraordinarily difficult, and while the new guidance does fill a gap, it’s not helpful to heap more responsibility for designing complex decision-making and oversight frameworks on trustees.

But we should treat this as an opportunity. The fact is that charities are entitled to campaign as they choose, so long as they have clear reasoning. Some may never touch on controversial issues.

Others might choose quite a conservative approach, while still others might decide that their chief executive developing a public profile as a commentator is exactly what is needed to pursue their mission. 

The point is, it’s an assessment for them to make. The commission only needs to get involved if they have breached law or regulation in the process.

Things become more complicated when it comes to the personal social media accounts of staff, volunteers and supporters.

Are trustees qualified to determine where a person’s right to freedom of expression should end, and control of a charity’s reputation should begin? What does it mean for organisations wanting to support a broader conception of leadership, representation and voice? 

Charities’ seeking to support more grassroots or community organising approaches might find the process run aground as trustees feel the need to exercise greater control from the centre.

We were initially bemused that the commission chose to step into an area that we questioned was even part of its role as regulator, knowing that most charities will feel compelled to follow.

That’s why we were pleased to see it signposting to practical advice by hands-on practitioners at CharityComms, rather than attempting to issue its own. 

Our fear remains that many trustees will still find the guidance so burdensome that the most attractive option will be to opt for a social media presence designed to rub absolutely no one up the wrong way.

For Orlando Fraser’s guidance and words to truly match, boards must have the knowledge, skill and confidence to codify when it’s time for ‘respect and tolerance’ and when it’s time to shift tone; when it serves their charitable purpose for their chief executive to appear on Question Time; or when it’s right to give a platform for someone’s first-hand experience, even when they may have difficult views on other issues. 

There are very few cast iron answers when it comes to social media oversight, except this: charities and trustees deserve far more support and advice than they currently get, and it shouldn’t all come directly from the regulator.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. SMK’s survey of trustees asks where they stand on charities speaking out, as well as their broader attitudes to campaigning. If you are a trustee of a charity you can complete the survey until 22 September.

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