OPINION: What agencies need to know about campaigning guidelines

The Charity Commission launched new guidelines this month. Sarah Miller explains their relevance to consultancies.

Agencies have long coveted charities as clients. Promoting good causes can often open doors corporates cannot even knock on, and provide a warmer glow than a PR campaign for the next 4 x 4.

Yet this kind of campaigning is not a creative free-for-all. While the law gives charities plenty of scope, there are limits too. As the 1 May elections approach, the Charity Commission's rewrite of our guidance for charities on campaigning and political activity is timely - so if you are a charity PRO, or have charity clients or partners, you need to know the score.

The law hasn't changed, but we felt it was important to make sure the rewritten guidance explained the law as accessibly as possible - the last thing we want is for charities to be self-censoring when it comes to campaigning.

Charities can campaign, and engage in political activity, as long as they are clear it supports their aims and they consider the likelihood of success and the resources needed. While political activity - for example, supporting a change in the law - can legitimately support a charity's aims, an organisation set up purely to lobby for a change in the law cannot be a charity.

It may be that political activity is the most effective way to support a charity's aims. It can even devote most or all of its resources to political activity for a period. What matters is that this is not, and does not become, its sole reason for being.

This leaves charities scope for action. Recently a group of civil liberty and human rights charities challenged government plans to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days. This was in direct support of their charitable aims and is acceptable under charity law, as the commission confirmed to complainants.

However, we will not allow confusion between charitable aims and party politics. When a number of charities were named recently in a public letter supporting one London mayoral candidate, we took action on this clear breach of the rules. Charities cannot support parties or candidates, and trustees need to make sure their charities are not used this way.

PROs also need to bear in mind the restrictions the Communications Act places on the use of broadcast adverts to support campaigns. But the commission's revised campaigning guidance should ensure that no matter what charities are looking to achieve, they will not score an own goal in the process.

Sarah Miller is head of news at the Charity Commission.

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