Charities: when does a campaign become political activity and why does it matter?

30 April, 2018

Charity X is a fictional dog charity and is running a campaign to promote healthy lifestyles for pet dogs based on exercise, diet and mental stimulation.


Charity Y is also a fictional dog charity and they are running a campaign to change the law to bring back compulsory dog licences.


German shepherd dog

Are they both running campaigns? Yes of course, but in terms of the Charity Commission Guidance on the subject, how do they differ and why does it matter?


As far as the Charity Commission is concerned the campaign run by Charity X would be defined as ‘campaigning’ whereas the ‘campaign’ run by Charity Y would be defined as ‘political activity’.


Here’s what ‘campaigning’ includes:

  • Awareness raising
  • Attempts to influence or change public attitudes
  • Efforts to ensure existing laws are observed


And this is what ‘political activity’ covers:

  • any activity aimed at securing, or opposing, any change in the law or the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies whether in this country or abroad


The reason this distinction matters is that charities are free to make campaigning (as described above) their sole activity and it can continue indefinitely. In contrast, trustees must ensure any political campaigning does not become the dominant activity of the charity and is for a limited period of time only.


The logic behind these differences is that to obtain charitable status an organisation must be established for a charitable purpose (as defined by the Charities Act 2011- see further here) which is for the public benefit. In England and Wales, a political purpose is not considered a charitable purpose so a charity that does nothing but engage in political activity albeit to achieve its charitable purpose could be construed as having, in fact, a political not charitable purpose and may lose its charitable status.


For example, let’s assume Charity Y above was set up to promote the welfare of dogs. If, in fact, the only activity carried out by Charity Y is the campaign to bring back dog licences, the charity might find itself losing its charitable status as having only a political purpose. On the other hand, if the main activity of Charity Y is running a dog rescue centre and the dog licence campaign is ancillary to that and run for a limited period, the charitable status of Charity Y is unlikely to be questioned.


All this is not to say that political activity cannot in some instances become the sole focus of a charity for a period. For example, the Charity Commission uses the example of a long established charity set up to preserve an English village who find out the local authority is about to approve a large housing development that would negatively affect the village. In these circumstances, it may be appropriate for the charity to devote all of its resources for a period to campaigning against the development. And indeed the Charity Commission accepts that this could be a lengthy period. However, the charity should carry out regular reviews of the situation to ensure they can justify the time and resources being spent on the campaign.


Whether a charity is running an awareness raising campaign or engaging in political activity, the trustees must ensure the activity furthers or supports the delivery of its charitable purposes. When doing this the trustees must also consider the costs and risks associated with the activity set against the benefits they hope to achieve.


Furthermore whilst political activity is a legitimate activity within the limits described above, the trustees must always ensure that nothing they do could be construed as party political. For example, they may support specific policies advocated by a political party if those views support their charitable purpose. However, a charity must not support a political party or candidate. The independence of the charity must be maintained at all times.


Finally, before any form of campaigning is considered, the trustees should check the charity’s governing document does not contain any prohibition against campaigning in which case they cannot, of course, run a campaign unless the constitution is changed.


For further information, see the Charity Commission Guidance, Campaigning and political activity guidance for charities (CC9)