Charities, be wary when political campaigning is on the agenda

Helen Kidd is a Partner and Head of Charities and the Third Sector, LindsaysHelen Kidd is a Partner and Head of Charities and the Third Sector, Lindsays
Helen Kidd is a Partner and Head of Charities and the Third Sector, Lindsays
Don’t get overexcited as the general election nears or you could end up in trouble

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expects the United Kingdom to go to the polls in a General Election “in the second half” of this year. As campaigning intensifies, the voices of charities will be undoubtedly important in all manner of issues.

The optics - to borrow a political phrase - of being seen to engage charitable organisations are often good. Politicians will seek the views of those running charities, and those supported by them. Charities certainly have good reasons for wanting to share their thoughts with politicians. The lobbying - and photo - opportunities can be mutually beneficial.

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But it is important that everyone in the third sector understands the rules of engagement when it comes to elections and campaigning - a mix of both electoral law and charity law.

All of us working with the third sector are well-advised to remember that the independence of charities is one of the most important tools in their armoury as organisations seek to advance causes and support communities.

It is important to keep that in mind - especially from a legal perspective,namid the heat and debate of an election campaign.

That’s not to say that charities should not be campaigning politically. Far from it. Political campaigning is one of the key ways in which charities can achieve their charitable purposes.

But it is important not to lose sight of the rules covering the sector. Scotland’s charities regulator, OSCR, is clear in this regard. Under Scottish charity law, you can campaign if:

It is advancing your charitable purpose.

Your own governing rules do not prevent a specific activity.

You are not advancing a specific political party (no matter how closely aligned your policies may be).

You can show you are acting in the charity’s best interests (including considering the reputational implications of any activity).

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Publicity, whether via mainstream or social media, is often the vehicle through which both the greatest benefits and risks come for charitable campaigning at elections, and generally.

In considering how you communicate, a valuable sense-check can often be: “Are we seeking to influence public opinion or trying to tell people how to vote?” It should, of course, be the former.

In Scotland, we have the Holyrood/Westminster dynamic to consider too. Is the issue either you or a candidate/party seeks to raise a reserved matter or one devolved to the Scottish Government?

Election campaigning is also an important reminder of the rules which charities must follow day-to-day.

Paid charity employees who lobby MSPs must properly record relevant interactions on the Scottish Lobbying Register. Unpaid trustees and volunteers are, however, exempt from doing so. If you are in any doubt about your obligations in this regard, we recommend seeking legal advice.

It is worth remembering that the register is not just an important tool for transparency, but also for campaign strategy. It can be useful to examine it, see what your peers are working on and where you may be able to collaborate for greatest effect.

Campaigning is at the core of achieving so much of what charities strive to achieve. Its role is often invaluable. It is important, though, that - even with the best of intentions - you stay on the right side of the line.