Charities campaigning and using social media

07 November 2023

We continue our special Trustees' Week series of articles by looking at some of the dos and don'ts of campaigning and using social media.

Today, Kirsty McEwen, Head of our Charities and Not-For-Profit team, examines good practice and where some charities fall foul of the rules.

There is some public support for charities campaigning for changes benefitting their beneficiaries. However, this is not universal support, and trustees will want to take particular care if operating in this area, not least because it can be a complicated area both legally and from a reputational perspective.

To achieve their objectives, charities might want to draw attention to and or seek support on particular issues or to encourage the public to act in particular ways. 

This kind of campaigning is not considered to be 'political' even if the campaigning is to encourage the public to follow a particular law or to take advantage of support provided by local or national government. 

If considering such activity, the trustees will, of course, need to ensure that it is in the best interests of the charity and make all related decisions properly. 

While charities are not allowed to be established for political purposes, they are able to undertake political activity which is directly in furtherance of their purposes and in the charity's best interests. 

For example, a charity that aims to protect waterways in the UK could campaign to increase legal restrictions on the discharge of waste into rivers if the trustees think this activity is in the best interests of achieving the charity's aims. A charity could not, however, be established for that specific purpose, nor could it be the only activity undertaken by the charity. 

The Charity Commission's guidance in this area was updated in November 2022. It explains that it uses the term' political activity' to describe "an activity which involves trying to secure support for, or oppose, a change in the law or in the policy or decisions of the central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad".

There are many things to consider when considering engaging in political activity, and we've set out a few of these things below.

  • Charities cannot undertake activities which are designed to support political parties or candidates, nor can they provide financial support.
  • Charities should ensure that they are clear in their messages that they're not supporting a particular politician or political party. Charities may work with politicians to influence decisions, but must take care to remain (and to be seen to remain) independent.
  • Charities' constitutions will often include an express power to carry out campaigning and political activities to the extent permitted by charity law, but this isn't expressly required. Trustees should check that such activity isn't prohibited, though! 
  • Trustees should be aware of the reputational risks of such activity. Statements with political elements tend to reach the headlines, and a misstep in a public campaign could be seen to negatively present the charity and undermine the message's importance.
  • Trustees should be aware of wider laws around such activities. Depending on the circumstances, fundraising and advertising regulations might be relevant, together with the laws around libel and slander.

It is particularly important for charities to be aware of the rules around campaigning and political activity, given that the next general election must be held by January 2025. During the period between an election being called and the election itself, as the Charity Commission explains in the CC9 guidance, "the need for impartiality and balance is intensified, and charities must take particular care when undertaking any activities in the political arena." 

In addition, charities may find that areas on which they were already campaigning become topics for debate ahead of the election. While this might be great for raising awareness, political neutrality remains essential, and there might be circumstances in which campaigning means the charity is considered a non-party campaigner under Electoral law. As the regulated period for non-party campaigners at a general election is one year prior to an election, we might already be in one!

If you do choose to undertake to campaign, whether 'political activity' or not, social media can be a brilliant way of raising awareness of issues and activities amongst both the supporter base and, more widely. The Charity Commission has recently released updated guidance on 'Charities and social media' and this would be a helpful place to start for all trustees considering the best way to incorporate social media into the charity's activities. 

The first step should always be to make sure that the charity has an effective and clear social media policy in place, and that all of those who are (or may be) using social media on behalf of the charity are aware of that policy and its importance. 

The benefits of social media, in its flexibility, speed and visibility, can also be a disadvantage if something doesn't go quite as it should. A social media policy should include consideration both of the way that the charity will use social media and remind those connected with the charity of the importance of ensuring that their personal views are not attributed to the charity and that any press contact relating to their social media should be directed to the relevant individual within the charity rather than a direct response being made.

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