What charities can and can't doOriginally published: May 2017 | Last reviewed: May 2017
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Tackling the root causes of issues such as inequality, poverty or environmental damage lies at the heart of many charity missions. Calling for systemic change often means campaigning to change government policy — but there are strict rules under UK law about how a charity engages in political campaigning. Nonprofit founders who are unaware of this may be refused charitable status or, once registered, face investigation.
What the law says
Charitable vs. political purposes
Charity Commission guidance (CC9) clearly sets out the rules: to be a charity, an organisation must have been established for charitable purposes. In addition, the organisation must be able to demonstrate public benefit. Political goals — promoting a particular party, or aiming to secure or oppose a change in the law or in policy — aren't considered charitable, and therefore an organisation with openly political goals will not be registered as a charity by the Charity Commission. If an existing charity is discovered to have political goals, the Charity Commission can take action.
For small charities which are not (and do not have to be) registered with the Charity Commission but which are registered for charity tax purposes with HM Revenue & Customs, engaging in political activity can affect their preferential charitable tax status.
The Charity Commission defines political purpose as anything aimed "at furthering the interests of any political party; or securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad."
How, then, do so many charities campaign for political change? Campaigning and certain forms of political activity are allowed — but, in the words of the Charity Commission's "What makes a charity (CC4)," only if this "facilitates or supports the delivery of its charitable purposes."
For example, a refugee charity might call for government enforcement of existing legislation that upholds refugee rights, or even call for a change in the law. In judging whether an organisation has political purposes or not, the commission will assess not simply how much political work is undertaken, but also how integral this is to the charitable work of the organisation and why it's being carried out.
If you're still unclear on the difference, the Charity Commission provides these examples of what's acceptable or not:
|An organisation established to oppose a new airport runway applies to register as a charity.||Any application for charity status would be rejected because of its political purpose. Its sole purpose would be to oppose the government's policy on airports.|
|An organisation aimed at environmental protection applies for charity registration. They'll have a number of activities, including campaigning for a change in the government's policy on airports.||The Charity Commission would accept the application if it was clear that securing a change in government policy was part of a wider range of activities aimed at furthering the charity's charitable purposes.|
A charity can also make public comment on social, economic and political issues if these relate to its purpose. And charities may focus on other types of campaigning — for example targeting the public or businesses on issues which form part of their charitable objects. (A health charity could promote the benefits of a balanced diet among teenagers, for example.) They're not, however, allowed to only do political campaigning.
If you operate in Scotland or Northern Ireland, be sure to consult guidance from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator or the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland (although the principles are broadly the same as for England and Wales).
Engaging with political parties
Obviously individuals who work for charities may support a particular political party. Equally there will be charities whose values will be closer to those of one party than any other. In such cases the individual or organisation concerned must be extra careful about how they express their political views or engage in political issues.
According to legal firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, a charity:
- Shouldn't support any specific party (but may support individual policies that will help the charity achieve its own charitable purposes)
- Should ensure neutrality by engaging various political parties and prospective candidates, rather than engaging or working with one party only
- Should be transparent about any contact with parties or politicians
- Shouldn't help any party or politician to get elected
- Shouldn't encourage others to support any one candidate over others
Implications for charities
These rules have many implications for how you establish your nonprofit and whether and how you pursue any political activity.
Choose an appropriate legal structure
Restrictions on political activity may be a strong argument for considering structures other than a charity structure when first establishing your organisation. If you do create a charity, make sure your governing documents don't prohibit political activity more than is necessary under charity law if this is going to be important to you.
Consider political activity carefully — especially in the run-up to elections
Charities have been cautioned when they overstep the mark. Shortly before the UK general election in early 2015, the Badger Trust called on its supporters to join a march to oppose a government policy on badger culling (a policy that the opposition Labour party also opposed). However, the Charity Commission intervened. In their report summarising the case, the commission argued that "trustees must ensure their charity is politically neutral and is seen as such publicly. This is always important, but is especially crucial in periods leading up to general elections. The [Badger Trust's] participation in the event, and its apparent promotion of the manifesto of a political party, risked calling its political neutrality into question."
Each of the three charity regulators has published specific guidance in the run-up to recent general elections and referendums, including requirements to inform the regulator if a charity is planning to spend more than £20,000 (England) or £10,000 (Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) on certain campaigning activities. Trustees should ensure they're aware of any requirements such as these ahead of future nationwide ballots.
At the same time, trustees should be aware that a charity is allowed to do certain things in relation to issues that form part of their charitable purposes. This includes:
- Asking candidates’ views on those issues and publishing those views
- Hosting a debate between candidates on those issues
- Publishing their own manifesto or briefing materials on those issues
Watch out for social media
Even seemingly harmless social media posts can alert the regulators to what might be considered unnecessary political activity. In 2014, Oxfam was investigated in part due to a tweet about austerity and the rise of food poverty in Britain. The commission accepted that Oxfam wasn't intending to act in a party political way, but cautioned it about the need for clarity to avoid any perception of political bias.
As legal firm Mills and Reeve explains: "Even if their intention is not to act politically, (charities) must consider how the social media message will be interpreted and whether there is a risk the charity may be seen as political."
In its report on the Oxfam case, the Charity Commission said that the same care must be taken for social media as for any other material produced by the charity — including written authorisation and sign-off procedures. Given that social media posts are so short and can be easily taken out of context, charities must ensure their messages are clear and not perceived as being party political.
Ensure your trustees are fully informed
The trustees are ultimately responsible for keeping a charity on the straight and narrow and consistently focused on its charitable purpose. Trustees should have a clear overview of the campaigning work of their charities and must be familiar with (and comply with) the relevant guidance.
Evolving legislation — and a delicate relationship
In early 2016, the UK government announced that all grant funding agreements would include a clause that would prevent those funds being used to influence members of parliament or political parties, to attempt to influence legislation or regulatory action, or to push for the renewal of contracts or grants. Many charities appealed against this, arguing that — because the terms of the clause were so broad — it would prevent charities from even sharing information with policymakers on issues for which they had front-line, valuable experience. The policy was overturned in December 2016 and now explicitly allows consultation or giving evidence to select committees.
Still, tension in the relationship between nonprofits and policymakers continues — with some in the charity sector expressing concern that the space for civil society to speak out is shrinking. In research by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation in 2016, more than one-third of charity professionals said their boards had become more wary of campaigning in the past three years.
Expert input and advice for this article was provided by Interface Legal Advisory Service, which specializes in providing low-cost and user-friendly assistance to charities and other nonprofits.
Charity Commission: Campaigning and political activity guidance for charities (CC9) (2008)
Charity Commission: What makes a charity (CC4) (2013)
Knowhow Nonprofit: How to engage with parliamentary candidates (2014)
BOND: Legal health check for campaigning in the UK by Sarah Gilbert (2015)
Charity Commission: Three questions answered on our EU Referendum Guidance by Sarah Atkinson (2016)