A seven-page document warns that supporting a Yes or No vote may go beyond the “scope” of some charities and trustees should “challenge, question, and consider this”.
The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) says the draft guidance was drawn up after requests from charities and had been “positively received”. But it has been branded confusing by third sector bosses, with concerns that the watchdog was over-stepping its remit.
Charities are barred by law from supporting political parties in an election, but the independence referendum is different and Alex Salmond has specifically urged civic Scotland to get involved in the debate.
The guidance states that any political activity must be clearly linked to an organisation’s “stated charitable purposes”.
It adds: “It seems unlikely to OSCR that supporting or opposing the prospect of Scottish independence as a whole can be linked to the furtherance of charitable purposes.”
Martin Sime, chief executive of third sector umbrella body the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) said the guidance was “well intentioned”.
But he added: “They’ve ended up being more confusing than when they started. As far as we’re concerned they just need to draw breath and think a bit – work out whether they need seven pages of guidance.
“For us it’s very simple. Charities – unless their founding documents prohibits it – can do anything they want in the referendum. The guidance should just say that.
“This may have been the starting point, but this is not going to be helpful to small groups.
“From our point of view, what matters is that charities feel able to contribute to the referendum. That’s critical because it’s a big decision for everyone.”
Asked if it could discourage charities from taking part, he added: “That’s my worry. Charities could get a bit nervous in this field, particularly charity trustees, and if they read seven pages of guidance, I’m not sure that’s helping them.”
The guidance includes a 21-point table of information setting out what is allowed, banned and issues for trustees to “think about”.
It also states that charities can take a policy position during the referendum debate on “issues relevant to their purposes”.
“Supporting a particular outcome is not necessarily advancing a political party, something which is clearly not allowed by charity law,” the guidance adds. “It’s possible, though, that supporting a particular outcome might be beyond the scope of some charities’ purposes.”
And even where it is legal for a charity to express a political view, OSCR says this “may not be the most sensible choice”.
“Charities should consider if there’s any risk in how the activity might look to the public and particularly their donors, funders and supporters,” it adds.
OSCR chief executive David Robb said: “The responses we have received have been enthusiastic and positive.
“We believe our draft guidance is entirely consistent with our position on political campaigning, which we have held since taking up our powers seven years ago, and will provide clarity for trustees.”
The heads of a number of smaller charities have said they are concerned about the impact of the guidance and are backing calls for a rethink.
Angus Hardie of the Scottish Community Alliance said: “This guidance is conflating the worry about charities getting involved in overtly political activity with becoming involved in something that has significant implications for everybody on every level, taking it beyond the realm of politicians.
“If the outcome of the referendum is clearly going to be in the interests of a charity’s aims and objectives, then it seems strange to forbid them from becoming involved in that debate.”
The Scottish Environment Link, a membership body for green charities, has written to the Yes and No campaigns calling for them to set out where they stand on a range of environmental issues.
Chief executive Andy Myles said: “The OSCR guidance could do with considerable sharpening to make it clear that charities might, within limitations, campaign for a Yes or No vote should they so choose.”