NCVO’s recommendations on how charities can uphold their independence and reputation

Why are we doing this?

In the furore caused by the new rules on non-party campaigning of the Lobbying Act, some may have (understandably) forgotten that last Summer NCVO brought together a number of sector campaigning experts to develop a code of good practice for lobbying and campaigning by charities.

The decision was made in response to Part I of the Act, which introduces a statutory register of lobbyists. But the provisions are wholly inadequate:

  • the requirements only apply to consultant lobbyists (“those who undertake lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client”) and therefore exclude in-house lobbyists (so most trade unions, think tanks, charities and law firms);
  • the information required is just who the lobbyist’s client is (not who is being lobbied, the policy area that is being lobbied on, or the amount of money that is being spent);
  • there is no accompanying code of conduct setting out standards of behaviour, and which lobbyists are required to adhere to.

The result is a register which will cover very few people. Many, including NCVO, were left disappointed by such minimal changes. While it is true that there is a clear difference between charity advocacy and campaigning and commercial lobbying, we had hoped that the register would be universal, covering a wider range of lobbyists than just consultancies, and including others such as charities and trade unions. People have a right to know who is trying to influence policy and why. So even though charities aren’t generally thought to be part of the problem, we believe they should have the highest standards of accountability and transparency.

Once the group set out its work, much of the focus had however moved to Part II of the Act. Specifically, we were in the midst of the debate about when (and why) campaigning and awareness raising by charities (which by law must be non-party political) could come within the definition of ‘controlled expenditure’ as an activity that ‘can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success at any particular election for one or more particular registered parties or candidates’.

It’s not just about campaigning

This and other work by NCVO was taking place in a very different context to what most of us are used to. Over the past 18 months, charities have been subject to increasing scrutiny on behalf of the media, politicians and the general public. This has sometimes led to strong criticism about what we do, how we do it, or how much money we spend it doing it.

From the scandal over charity chief executive pay, to the Panorama programme about Comic Relief and Save the Children, and the recent Oxfam ‘Perfect Storm’ tweet, we’ve seen a number of charities in the spotlight. Each of these has a potential ‘halo effect’ on other organisations, and on general levels of public trust and confidence.

It is also becoming more difficult to ignore that not all people think charities a good: just read through the summary of ‘The Great British Rake Off’. Yes, we know that the whole book is littered with factual inaccuracies, but what about the 7,300 (minimum) people who read and then shared the article?

Can we, and do we want to, risk being complacent and brushing all this off as a minority that don’t understand what being a modern charity is about, or do we want to do something about it?

What NCVO is suggesting

NCVO has chosen to do something about it. We have developed a series of recommendations to help charities ensure their reputation and independence are not open to attack. Some of the recommendations are more specifically about campaigning, aimed at upholding the highest standards in all aspects of such an important activity (from building your research base, to communicating your messages using Twitter). Other recommendations are about broader issues that charities are increasingly needing to consider, such as corporate partnerships, ‘revolving doors’ in recruitment, and employees’ personal involvement in party politics.

Our aim is to supplement the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activities by charities, by providing advice on how to go above and beyond the legal requirements and move towards a gold standard.

Since these are recommendations, it will of course be up to each individual charity to decide whether to adopt them, and if so how. Some may not feel the need to do this, or may already have many of the policies we recommend in place. Hopefully however, those that do choose to follow our advice will have no chinks in their armour, and will feel confident in the knowledge that they have taken all reasonable steps to protect their independence.

A draft of the recommendations is available here.

The process so far has not been an easy one: although our priority is to protect charities and their independence, and we have tried to approach the issues in a helpful and constructive way, some have expressed concern that our recommendations will cause regulatory creep and cause the opposite effect of fuelling the fire.

Next: tell us what you think

To avoid this we have already engaged with a number of organisations that have expressed an interest in this work. Now we are widening the consultation and are asking for people’s views about what we are proposing. Are the recommendations enough or should we be expecting more from our organisations? Are any of the recommendations problematic? Are there other areas that need to be addressed? Does your organisation already have similar policies in place?

Please feel free to comment below or email me directly at Elizabeth.Chamberlain@ncvo.org.uk

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

One Response to NCVO’s recommendations on how charities can uphold their independence and reputation

  1. Jon Davies says:

    When I heard about the idea of senior staff having to publish their political affiliations I immediately thought that it had come from some extreme right think tank seeking to yet again expose us as a bunch of loony lefties and continue their campaign to neutralise the voluntary sector’s campaigning effort. I now hear it was an NCVO suggestion. So, being balanced as I am a big NCVO supporter, I am wondering whether this was a brilliant piece of strategy to ridicule the coalition government’s latest legislation by some wit in the NCVO. I hope so. Otherwise this is crazy. As a charity CEO I work with government based on evidence and my charities mission. Personal politics are irrelevant. Should such a register be created it would jeopardise this professional approach and, I suspect, lead to a lot of senior staff being unwilling to join a party in case it affected their careers. I hope this is an idea that will disappear very quickly.