A third of charity workers say their senior management teams have become more cautious about campaigning in the past three years, research by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation shows.
A survey of 151 people involved with the charity sector, carried out by SMK, also found that almost half (49 per cent) of respondents believed the campaigning environment for charities had become worse in the past year.
And 87 per cent of respondents named measures introduced by government, including the lobbying act, as a threat to the legitimacy of campaigning.
The next most commonly identified threat named was a reluctance among senior management teams and trustees to campaign, which 67 per cent of respondents said they believed was an issue.
A third of all respondents said they had seen this happening with their own charities’ senior management teams over the past three years.
Other threats to campaigning identified by respondents were funding conditions that discouraged campaigning (cited by 61 per cent), negative media coverage of the charity sector (55 per cent) and negative public perceptions of the sector (49 per cent).
And 34 per cent said Charity Commission guidance also posed a threat to the legitimacy of campaigning.
Just under a third (30 per cent) said they believed the campaigning environment had made it harder to get funding in the past three years, and 21 per cent said it had made it harder to get support from the charity’s members for campaigning.
But only 13 per cent said the environment had led them to reduce the amount of campaigning they did, the survey found, and 92 per cent said they believed more charity sector campaigning would be needed in the next three months.
In a statement, Sue Tibballs, chief executive of SMK, said: "Campaigning plays a crucial role in a healthy democracy. It tracks the impact of government policies, amplifies the voices of people affected and engages the public in debates on social change.
"The evidence suggests that unclear lobbying legislation and unhelpful rhetoric have knocked charities’ confidence to speak out. Sadly, it’s all too easy to confuse party political activity – which everyone understands is illegal – with proper participation in political debate."
She said the government had a duty to clarify that it recognised charities’ legitimate role in the political process.
When asked what should be done to improve the campaigning environment, respondents said the voluntary sector needed to tell a clearer, more compelling story about why they campaigned, to work together more, to be braver and to be more mission-led.
Responses also called for unreasonable restrictions, including the lobbying act, to be lifted.