From anti-slavery movements, to changes in electoral law and the living wage campaign, the voluntary sector has often played an important role in highlighting the need for changes to laws and policies for the benefit of disadvantaged people.
Charities have a long and proud history of campaigning and political activity. The issues tackled by charities, such as poverty, often require legal or structural changes that can best be influenced by campaigning activities. Although charities can’t have a political purpose, they can campaign to achieve their charitable objects.
Age UK’s purpose, for example, is to create a world where older people can live free from poverty, isolation and neglect, and does this, in part, by campaigning for changes in policy and practice. For instance, it may petition to protect the state pension triple lock and campaign against benefit cuts.
However, there are boundaries that charities, their staff and volunteers need to be aware of to remain within the law.
- All campaigning by a charity must be in the interests of the charity’s specific cause and further its purposes. It can’t campaign for any worthwhile cause.
- Although charities can support a policy endorsed by a political party, they need to remain independent of party-political bias. They can work with political parties and candidates to influence decisions in support of the charity’s purpose, but they must not support or promote political candidates or parties.
- Political activities cannot be the only activities that the charity carries out, but they can contribute to the achievement of charitable purposes.
When trustees are familiar with the regulatory guidance, they can come to informed and responsible board decisions on campaigning which they can justify.
Charities that work with political parties or candidates need to ensure that party-political messages are not promoted at their events or premises. Charities should be aware that they are more likely to be seen as independent if their political engagement involves all major political parties.
When trustees decide to engage in political activity, they should ensure that they act within the charity’s governing document and in the charity’s best interest, weighing up the potential risks or benefits of speaking up – or of not speaking up - on political issues concerning their cause.
Charities need to ensure that the charity’s purpose remains at the heart of their decisions about political activities. The personal views of individual trustees, staff or volunteers may be inferred due to their existing or past roles, or they may become apparent in discussions, but decisions should only be based on what is in the charity’s best interests. Charities not only need to be mindful about how decisions are made, but also need to mitigate against the perception of bias.
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