Duelling with politicians and why Oxfam has got it right

The debate about charities being 'too political' is rumbling on this week after a Conservative MP asked the Charity Commission to investigate whether an Oxfam campaign breached guidelines.

Oxfam: Not frightened of taking on political challenges
Oxfam: Not frightened of taking on political challenges

Reactions to the latest Oxfam campaign, not least that of MP Conor Burns, have been passionate. 

But too many ‘debates’ about the charity sector quickly become oversimplified. Chief executive salaries, the cost of fundraising, charity advertising, funding sources – you name it.

True to form, in what starts as a legitimate discussion about the extent to which charities should become engaged in the political process, facts are quickly replaced by emotion. 

There is an important distinction between an organisation engaging legitimately in the political process by espousing a particular view and on the other hand engaging directly in support of one political party.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Sometimes a charity’s policies happen only to be supported by the representatives of one party. The onus is rightly on charities to demonstrate that they are speaking about an issue, or on behalf of beneficiaries; not for or against one party. 

However there are few if any charities that can avoid engaging with political issues altogether. It’s almost inevitable. Animal welfare, child abuse, disability, the environment, overseas development – all are surrounded by political considerations and evoke strong personal views that are often reflected in the political debate. 

For me it comes down to some key questions for charities to ask themselves:

By taking on a particular issue or promoting a particular policy or financial solution, is it acting clearly within its remit, in the interests of its beneficiaries and/or in pursuit of its charitable objectives? 

If yes, is the particular approach being proposed in line with the charity’s brand, its values, its audience and supporter expectations as well as its own policies? In other words is it the right thing for that charity and its beneficiaries at that time?

If yes, is the activity clearly non-partisan? There can be a fine line between campaigning in support of or against a particular policy change as opposed to campaigning for or against a particular political party – but this is the real test. 

The Charity Commission website is quite clear:

"…charities may undertake campaigning and political activity as a positive way of furthering or supporting their purposes. Charities have considerable freedom to do so, subject to the law and the terms of their governing documents. In doing so, charities must be mindful of their independence. Charities, of course, can never engage in any form of party political activity."

Oxfam’s statements about its campaign suggest it has asked and answered these questions. I’m sure it will now be paying close attention to the reaction of its supporters and others and that will be taken into account as the campaign progresses. Oxfam has made it clear that it sees poverty as a non-partisan issue and its ongoing challenge will be to ensure that comes across clearly in its messaging.

Charities should not be frightened of taking on issues simply because they hold political challenges. Indeed they have a responsibility to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries. Being told by one political party or another that you are too political can be a simple reflection that they don’t agree with you. But charities do have a heavy responsibility to do it right while being true to their brand, their purpose and above all their beneficiaries. 

John Grounds is a strategic brand, marketing and communications consultant and the former deputy CEO of the RSPCA

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