Weathering the storm? Charity campaigning under attack

Expectations of charities are changing. Not only are the media all over how they spend their money, raise finance and the behaviour of senior executives but now politicians are openly taking issue with their campaigns. In particular, whether these campaigns are ‘political’.

The passing of the “Lobbying Act”, or more formally the Transparency of Lobbying Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, has undoubtedly shifted the agenda. During the progress of the legislation, charities and other organisations complained that they would be ‘gagged’ but the Coalition Government reassured them that this was not the case.

There remain uncertainties around the type of activities and expenditure which may now be regulated (see Free Speech at a Price). The Electoral Commission has promised to publish relevant guidance on the Act by early July which should help. There is though the potential for gaps emerging between the Act and its guidance, and the existing requirements of the Charity Commission.

In the meantime politicians are looking to get their retaliation in first and ensure that they keep up the pressure on what is and is not ‘political’ campaigning. The latest example of this concerns Oxfam’s ‘the Perfect Storm’ tweet.

Conor Burns MP, has asked the Charity Commission to get involved claiming that the poster is a political campaign. But his actions have given Oxfam, and its campaign, more publicity than it could ever have hoped for.

The argument has been made that by associating the Coalition with the ‘perfect storm’, Burns himself made it political. Issues such as childcare costs and zero hour contracts, it is suggested, are being looked at by all the political parties for reform. However, others identify consistent left wing bias and point to suggested links between Oxfam, and other charities, and the Labour Party.

But there have been a whole number of recent political interventions from Peter Bottomley accusing the NCVO of a massive over-reaction’ against the lobbying bill through Priti Patel’s complaints about the salary of the Chief Executive of the Charity Commission through to Burns’ latest comments (which have been backed by several prominent Conservative MPs). It has also been claimed that threats are being made suggesting an air of danger not really seen before in the sector.

These comments are making the issue of campaigns increasingly political and mean that charities have to go ‘above and beyond’ in checking the legal and regulatory requirements, and even that may not be enough to protect them. The media consider charities fair game and politicians will often step in with a helpful quote to support the article’s line. Indeed, the media is already broadening its approach to consider taxpayer funding. An issue raised by the Public Accounts Select Committee and now being consulted on by the Charity Commission.

The fear of constant referrals to the authorities means that charities will have to take a number of steps.

There will be an even greater need to ensure that all the regulatory hurdles are being overcome. This will involve considering not only the legal requirements but interpreting what they mean in practice and, over time, considering the precedents, cases and other statements that emerge as a result – all will impact on what charities do. There is no hiding that this could cost charities more in administration costs.

It is also important that charities are able to demonstrate what steps they have taken, the safeguards put in place and how campaigning decisions have been arrived at. Charities potentially have to be able to show the regulatory authorities that they have acted properly.

But there are also communications challenges. Before any campaign is ready for the off, the charity will need to be ready to show what safeguards have been put in place. If the campaign could be seen as political by some then some very robust messaging will have to be in place. Not only this but communications teams will need to consider the prospect of more regular crisis situations and a more adversarial relationship with some media.

This could impact on the reputation of the charity concerned but, almost perversely, may be beneficial. Some have said that people are attracted by a more radical approach in some instances.

None of this will not stop politicians from getting involved but at least starts to put some protections in place.

Campaigning by charities has always had to walk a tightrope with a number of checks and balances in place. That tightrope has been made higher and narrower.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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