Heads above the parapet: Trustee attitudes to campaigning

16 Nov 2023 In-depth

Chloe Hardy and Tania Mason report on the findings of the first-ever survey of trustee attitudes to charities having a louder voice in the national conversation.

A recent analysis by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) of charities’ appearances on TV current affairs programmes such as Question Time and the Andrew Marr Show found that charity CEOs were significantly less likely to appear on such platforms compared with leaders from academia, journalism and business.

Conversations with charity leaders about this disparity threw up another interesting finding – a lack of clarity, and perhaps confidence, among charity trustees as to what charity CEOs can or should legitimately speak about, and how. As a consequence, some CEOs aren’t sure how far they have the backing of their trustee boards to speak up on topical – and sometimes controversial – issues.

Yet discussions with senior figures from other sectors suggested that they recognised and valued the evidence and experience that charities can bring to public debate. They saw that charities were trusted in a way that other commentators were not, and that their views were guided by strong values and deep convictions.

In light of these matters, SMK and Governance & Leadership (G&L) decided to delve more deeply into trustee attitudes on these issues, and on charity campaigning more generally, in a survey solely of board members. We wanted to take the temperature of trustees on these issues in the hope that greater understanding of the barriers might help charities to have a louder voice on the issues that are important to them – particularly vital as we approach an election year.

The survey was open from 21 August to 25 September 2023, and attracted 165 responses. Just over two-fifths were small charities with less than £1m income; 14% had income between £1m and £5m; 18% had £5m-£20m and just 2% had turnover exceeding £50m. Some 63% of respondents were trustees of charities with fewer than 50 staff.

Key findings

The results pointed to a strong appetite for charities to speak up on issues that were core to their charity’s purpose but, in this febrile political environment, trustees were keen for clearer guidance in order to govern with confidence.

The survey showed that there is a strong belief that campaigning is a vital part of charities’ work and that they should draw attention to the underlying causes of the issues they work on.

Trustees have high confidence that charities can deploy a range of tactics in pursuit of change, such as changing attitudes, lobbying, advocacy, debating policy issues, or pushing for changes in legislation.

There is a great desire to see more charity CEOs have a public profile and take part in public discourse, and most agree that such engagement can be an effective way for a charity to achieve its mission and goals.

But trustees’ confidence wavered in the face of external challenges, as they voiced concern that the risks of attacks from politicians and the media could outweigh the benefits derived from speaking up. More than one in four of those whose organisations campaign said they had experienced attacks from politicians, and more than one in five had from the media.

The situation is not helped by a lack of clarity about where the Charity Commission stands on all of this. Many felt that the regulator’s public pronouncements did not match its formal guidance.

High confidence in campaigning

More than four in five respondents see campaigning as a vital part of charities’ work. They almost unanimously agreed that charities should raise awareness of the issues they work on (95%) and, where appropriate, shed light on the causes of the issues they work on and push for change to prevent them (91%).

In terms of organisational approaches to campaigning, three-quarters of trustees felt their organisation was interpreting the boundaries “about right”, agreeing that they “speak on the issues that are necessary”.

Role of the CEO

Four in five trustees say they would like to see more CEOs have a public profile and take part in public discourse. The same number say it is legitimate for CEOs to speak up not just on behalf of their current organisation but also to draw on their wider professional experience. And more than nine in ten think it’s right for CEOs to talk about their organisation’s engagement in society-wide challenges such as equality, diversity, and inclusion.

However, when asked about the parameters for taking part in public discourse, the view becomes more mixed. Over 90% are comfortable about CEOs speaking out on issues directly linked to their charity’s work or the wider underlying causes and effects, but less than half (49%) are comfortable with CEOs speaking on any topical issues of the day – for example, if required as part of appearing on a current affairs programme like Question Time. In comments, trustees noted that context and organisation type/cause are major factors in deciding where to draw their lines.

Ensuring that personal views do not encroach on organisational communications was key for some. One trustee wrote: “CEO should express opinion on behalf of charity.

Personal opinions can be expressed but clearly identified as personal and not connected to charity.” Yet, a few are highly uneasy about the whole prospect of charities putting their heads above the parapet. One respondent admitted to being “uncomfortable with the whole issue – it is difficult for anyone not to include their own views on matters and stick solely to the charity – once said, difficult to retract!”

And despite these divergent views, it appears that many organisations are still not proactively exploring these issues and seeking to build consensus. For example, two-thirds say their organisation has never discussed the extent to which their CEO is encouraged or permitted to comment in public, and even among those who say their charities actively campaign, still over half (52%) have not considered it.

Other spokespeople

Interestingly, while most respondents (87%) said it should be up to the CEO to be the public voice of the organisation on issues, significant numbers also felt it could be appropriate for others to speak up too. For instance, 53% thought the chair of trustees could also be a legitimate spokesperson on behalf of the organisation – just slightly less than the 55% who cited the director of communications. Fewer than two in five said those with lived experience of the cause should be put forward as spokespeople for the organisation.

However, several people commented that context was hugely important here. One respondent said: “A CEO speaking out about personal experience of equity, diversity and inclusion issues would be very different if they were speaking from a point of view of privilege, or of oppression. And the context of public discourse would matter a lot as to who is the best person to be the spokesperson.”

Encouragingly, some charities are dealing effectively with such considerations. One trustee wrote: “We have clear boundaries, roles and responsibilities and a culture of trust and open communication – we discuss who says what to whom and where personal life and opinions of director separate from professional role and legal implications for organisation and board.”

Fears of backlash

But it is clear that many trustees are worried about the repercussions that can arise from their charities having a higher profile. Many are concerned that the risks of speaking out could outweigh the benefits in the face of attacks from politicians (74%) or the media (84%), loss of income from donors (80%) or public bodies (74%), or lack of support from users of their services (70%).

These concerns are not unfounded. More than one in four of those whose organisations campaign said they had experienced attacks from politicians (28%), and more than one in five from the media (22%).

Furthermore, 6% of respondents confirmed that their charity had at some point been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that would have impeded its ability to speak publicly on issues that it felt were important. Another 38% did not know whether their charity had been asked to or not.

One respondent had particularly strong views on the public sector’s use of NDAs, describing them as “often a more dangerous and pernicious impediment to campaigning than public criticism”. They went on: “One can bear significant media backlash – it is ultimately part of the operation of a healthy democratic society – but NDAs can present a choice between being involved in decisions that affect the community we’re trying to support and being able to publicly highlight scandals that affect the community we’re trying to support. Given the use of NDAs often appears to be motivated primarily by the public reputation of the government body, rather than the interests of service users, and as these government bodies are often outside direct central government control (whether quangos or parts of the NHS), these NDAs are often obviously offensive to any broad public interest.”

Meanwhile, some trustees of membership organisations cited challenge from their members as impediments to their campaigning. One said: “Some of our members have been vocally critical, on social media and at open meetings of the membership, which can cause reputational damage (internally) and affect our ability to fulfil some objectives and, for example, maintain positive working environments for staff with identities under attack.”

Another wrote: “The main opponents to our engagement in campaigning are our members who are also our funders, as our main source of income is membership subscriptions.”

Regulation and guidance

The situation is not helped by a lack of clarity about where the Charity Commission stands. More than one in four say they do not think the Commission’s guidance and public commentary match up, perhaps reflecting the gap between the facts of regulation and statements of previous chairs.

More positively, in recent weeks, the current chair Orlando Fraser has sought to clarify matters, saying: “I will robustly defend charities’ right to campaign lawfully, even where such campaigning covers sensitive or politically divisive ground.”

On the Commission’s campaigning guidance CC9, only 16% of respondents say they find it “very clear” and around 38% are unfamiliar with the guidance. And, of those whose organisations actively campaign, only half (51%) are somewhat or completely clear on what should be included in a “campaigns and political activity policy”, which the latest Annual Return guidance suggests it may be appropriate for charities to have.

Clearly, there is a significant job to do ensuring that the decision to campaign, and how, stands up to scrutiny from regulators and criticism from hostile commentators. The survey’s findings suggest that trustees do not yet feel entirely confident that they can do so robustly.

Social media

More than half of trustees were unaware that new social media guidance would be forthcoming, and 44% say they would be extremely or fairly uncomfortable about restricting senior staff from expressing personal opinions on their own social media accounts.

This is likely to be a difficult and complex conversation for some organisations. While a few respondents wrote of the importance of board members feeling able to trust their CEO to strike the right balance on social platforms, one wrote: “Coming from the corporate world, I have a clear expectation that senior staff, including the CEO of the charities at which I am a trustee, restrict their social media usage to avoid any risk to their employer, and that any media engagement outside of predefined bounds is agreed with the board.”

Another said: “I really don’t like restricting anyone’s freedom to express their views but a CEO has to be aware of their wider responsibilities to not jeopardise the charity’s ability to fulfil its mission. I can see that should a CEO express certain (problematic) views then having guidelines and a clear policy would be essential.”

There is clearly an opportunity for provision of better support to help trustees navigate these topics; 76% said they would appreciate more frameworks or tools to help their board to develop and manage their approach to campaigning and speaking out. SMK is working on this.

Perseverance is key

Perhaps one of the most positive takeaways from this inaugural survey is the confirmation that so many trustees have strong views on these issues and are working hard with their boards to overcome some of the barriers, despite some opposition from some quarters.

As one respondent said: “We are currently on a journey moving towards more campaigning. Previously we were very research and policy-led, but we reached a wall with what can be achieved through these means only. After much discussion and strategic thinking, the board and senior leadership decided that in order to achieve our mission, we need to shift public and political attitudes.”

Another trustee outlined the positive impact that their charity’s campaigning has had: “We often receive criticism for our positions on issues relating to our focus area. We are unpopular with some people and groups who believe our evidence-based analyses injure their own beliefs or assertions. Whilst this can sometimes be concerning (including threats, bullying, exclusion, and refusal to collaborate, communicate or engage), it is overwhelmingly negated by the amount of support we receive from others who appreciate our willingness to take up challenge, hold complexity and refuse to comply with mainstream opinion for the sake of it. We are in receipt of new funding, new audience and membership and invigorated interest in our work – so the rewards outweigh the risks, despite the difficulties sometimes. We are a very strong, aligned and supportive team with robust leadership, policies and processes for clear decisionmaking and lines of authority.”

Another summed up why charities must not be deterred: “The boost of a successful campaign cannot be overestimated.”

Chloe Hardy is director of policy and communications at SMK and Tania Mason is editor of G&L

The full report will be launched at an online event on Tuesday 21 November from 3.30pm. Sign up to attend here.

Comments from survey respondents, on:

Your experience/understanding of, or approach to, campaigning:

“It is clear that while responding to current need is an important part of our work, we will never eliminate or reduce that need unless we do more to influence government/funders and to some extent public awareness/ attitudes. We mostly use research or feedback we get from frontline worker surveys to support our messaging rather than pure opinion or the experience of an individual.”

“It is possible (and important) that some charities propose alternative analyses of the causes, impacts and realities of social phenomena – and the ways in which policy is made, implemented and experienced. Charities emerged as critiques of government policy and practice – part of the function, role and purpose of non-governmental organisations is precisely to demonstrate how the state can improve and develop services and attention to citizens and communities. It is increasingly problematic that charities are NOT non-governmental – but subsumed by contracts, subcontracting arrangements and dependencies upon government in different ways, now including agency, authority and audience.”

“Campaigning is a very thorny issue, particularly for a charity like us which supports a much-vilified group of highly marginalised people. Raising our profile in public debate is risky – as it could easily provoke a backlash, from the right-wing press and online. So there is a risk of doing more harm than good. We need to be careful and considered in our campaigning strategy. Also to be mindful of protecting our staff and community members as so much public discourse results in (non-physical) attacks.”

“Our organisation has a proud history, dating back centuries, of campaigning for reforms that at the time were very contentious (eg anti-slavery). There are issues of a similar calibre that face us today, but I feel our board of trustees and charity leadership are enfeebled by the current vociferous political climate on the culture wars, when we should be speaking out on what we believe to be right.”

“It would be impossible with our large membership to truly represent everyone, therefore better left alone.”

“CEOs should not become seen as ‘rent a mouth’ type figures in the media, they should target their statements to serve their constituency whilst working with other CEOs to highlight the need to address underlying causes. Less is sometimes more in terms of raising your voice.”

Comments from survey respondents, on:

Your charity’s experience of criticism or backlash to its campaigning:

“The impact of government contracts and maintaining funder relationships with government has a clear chilling effect on campaign voice. Even if campaigning still happens, there is a preference for behind-closed-door conversations about any government policy. Funding has not been withdrawn but all these comments have an impact.”

“I think we have probably moderated what we do to avoid backlash in the past, though now we are in a position to talk about evidence we are becoming more confident.”

“In a volatile media and political landscape, with culture wars being stoked left, right and centre, it’s natural to worry about press or state response to criticism of policy.”

“Local authority verbalises – ‘if you take a contract you should not be able to criticise us’.”

Comments from survey respondents, on:

Factors in the current political and social landscape that affect your charity’s appetite to speak out:

“As a UK destitution/poverty-focused organisation, delivering emergency aid, in the current economic and policy climate we are at max capacity dealing with immediate need and do not have the capacity we would like to be effectively campaigning and influencing on root causes and solutions.”

“Increased police hostility has inhibited our practical activism and direct action campaigning, and made it challenging to ensure all our campaign activities are diverse and inclusive (as police hostility disproportionately impacts eg people of colour, or some age demographics). The lack of coherence, and rapidly changing language/thinking around trans inclusion, as well as wide lack of understanding of the issue among some older demographics in our membership (partly due to really poor media coverage, polarised communications and general anxiety about any discourse) has made it hard to speak out with confidence on the issue, despite a clear mandate.”

“The danger of getting caught up in the ‘culture war’ just because the people we work with are so very different to politicians from most parties (young, working class, marginalised). The lack of engagement and representation of this group in public life (one of our goals) means that we are always going to be raging against the machine, which makes the current climate for charities difficult. The lack of funding for marginalised voices and where the funding does exist it shapes the programme so that it’s no longer an authentic reflection of the young people’s voices.”

“The fear of a social media pile-on that a small charity would struggle to handle and could lead to negative feedback from grant funders.”

“I am aware that the charity sector as a whole (including myself) leans in one particular direction politically, and I worry there is a strong danger of groupthink on many issues. The current landscape is highly politicised and sometimes we run the risk of alienating supporters because we have been too focused on speaking, not enough on listening and learning.”

A note from SMK's CEO: Gearing up for an election

The Charity Reform Group (CRG), hosted by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), is a grouping of charity leaders who have come together to help charities and their CEOs play a more prominent role in public – and political – debate. In its first report, Speak up, we need you, it shared insights from conversations it held with leaders from other sectors – business, the public sector, arts and culture, politics. What came across loud and clear was that people outside the sector believe charities bring an invaluable perspective and very much want them to play a more active role in national conversations.

Public support for charity campaigning is also strong. A decade of investigation by nfpResearch demonstrates that the public is far more supportive of charities campaigning than some would suggest. They say: “Time and again…we’re being told that the majority of people in the UK are in support of charities as voices of political reason.” Latest polling by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) found that 63% of Conservative voters think that charities are getting their political intervention “about right”. People are putting their money where their mouths are, with attacks by politicians and the media on charities such as National Trust and RNLI being followed by large spikes in giving.

It is also very welcome to see the Charity Commission be more positive about charity campaigning. We really need this clarity after what has been quite a vexed period for charity campaigning. Hopefully the Commission, and its chair Orlando Fraser, can keep this message coming through.

Pleasingly, the support for charities’ right to campaign from the public and the regulator seems to be cutting through to trustees. Our joint survey with G&L shows that the overwhelming majority are confident in that right – but putting it into practice can be a challenge. Trustees and senior managers now need to equip their organisations to do so in the way that’s best for them. This means discussing why campaigning or speaking out is essential to their mission, how they will ensure they observe laws and regulation while doing so, and what the parameters should be.

To do so, they need accessible guidance and training. Our survey shows that only 14% of trustees have ever sought legal advice, reached out to the Charity Commission, or approached another organisation to better understand how their charity can speak out.

With an election year fast approaching, the time is right to have these conversations. Revisit the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity (CC9), ask staff how this will be applied during an election year, and look at the guidance we recently launched with Bates Wells (https://bit.ly/GE-SMK-BW).

During NCVO’s latest annual general meeting, speakers said they expected so-called “culture war” rhetoric to intensify in the run-up to the general election, but warned against allowing it to silence charities. The best way to take your campaigning into 2024 with confidence is to lay strong foundations now, freeing you up to do what you were created to do – pursue your mission, without fear or favour, in order to create a better world.

Sue Tibballs is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation  

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.



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