andy Frain 120

Andy Frain

Campaigns and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

Charities and the legal right to be political

23 April 2021

The charity sector is about as diverse as it is possible to be, encompassing everything from world-class universities to local foodbanks. There is much to evangelise about the benefits of this diversity and the pandemic has shown how these disparate voices all play a role in making a positive difference to society in the UK and around the world.

But for many there is a persistent confusion about what role charities can – and do - play in our society.

Some take the view that the only legitimate function of charities is provide services that address the symptoms of society’s problems. This view excludes advocacy work that attempts to challenge the root causes which may create or exacerbate those problems in the first place. As the then-Chief Commissioner of the Charity Commission put it in 1979, “the role of the charity is to bind up the wounds of society. To build a new society is for someone else.” Or as former Minister for Civil Society, Brooks Newmark, put it in a more recent 2014 furore over campaigning, charities should “stick to their knitting”.

The latest manifestation of this viewpoint has come in the form of reports of a letter to the Charity Commission calling for an investigation into leading race equality think tank Runnymede Trust for "pursuing a political agenda" in their response to the Government’s Sewell Report on race and ethnic disparities.

This follows other recent accusations of politicisation from MPs over the National Trust’s work to understand links to colonialism and racism at its historic properties. The Charity Commission once again investigated, finding that the National Trust did not break charity law and that it undertook the project in a considered way after much discussion, including with a panel of its members and in full consultation with its board of trustees.

A proud record

Charity Commission CEO Helen Stephenson wrote thoughtfully about the right of charities to campaign and what they need to consider in doing so.

She wrote: “Charities have a proud record of engaging in public debate from a variety of perspectives, giving a voice to their beneficiaries and highlighting their cause and, in doing so, and ultimately changing society. Not all charities represent causes that are universally supported, but all charities must be independent.”

"Charities have a proud record of engaging in public debate"

Helen Stephenson
CEO, Charity Commission