Tania Mason: Should charities be fighting fire with fire?

14 Sep 2023 Voices

Editor of G&L Tania Mason takes a look at the recent thread from RSPB...

Infographic from RSPB's X post criticising government environment policy https://twitter.com/RSPBEngland/status/1696845799383003180

If the RSPB comms team were recently feeling secretly satisfied with themselves, you could hardly blame them.

Even if their controversial thread on X (formerly Twitter) accusing three government ministers of being “LIARS!” over their environmental commitments was a genuine error, there’s no denying it achieved cut-through in a way that campaigning with “kindness and tolerance”, as Charity Commission chair Orlando Fraser exhorts charities to do, often fails to.

By singling out specific individuals, the tweets strayed over the line from legitimate campaigning in support of the RSPB’s charitable purposes into party-political activity, contravening charity law and the Commission’s guidance. But it’s not difficult to sense the frustration the charity must have felt at the government’s continual “reneging on its environmental promises”, as its subsequent apology more delicately put it. The temptation to accuse Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Therese Coffey of lying was clearly too strong for someone at the charity to resist – and the posts somehow managed to circumvent the usual approval process, according to CEO Beccy Speight.

But responses to the thread showed that the message landed well with much of the charity’s supporter base and with others fed up with the government’s environmental record. It also garnered extensive media coverage and secured Speight a spot on the Today programme, where she was able to press home the fact that the government has been rowing back on protections for nature.

So, even though it had to apologise, and will surely be admonished by the Commission (which has described the posts as a “serious mistake”), the RSPB has drawn wide attention to an issue that is core to its cause. It is telling that the thread has still not been deleted – and, as G&L went to press, it had amassed 10.7 million views.

Let’s not forget that this government has form for name-calling and scapegoating itself – witness home secretary Suella Braverman’s recent description of some charities and civil society groups as “politically motivated activists masquerading as humanitarians”, not to mention her talk of an “invasion” of the UK by refugees. After 13 years of a government that has consistently reversed or failed to deliver on pledges, it may feel to many charities that fighting fire with fire is the only option.

At the end of the day, it is a matter for each charity’s board to weigh up the risks of campaigning and political activity against the risks of saying and doing nothing – and to decide what that activity should look like, within the parameters of the law, of course.

What do you think?

For us at G&L, the story is timely. We have just launched a new survey in partnership with the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, exploring the attitudes of trustees to just this kind of question. We want to know what you think about charity CEOs and others speaking out on topics of national importance, and to find out how such questions are dealt with at the charity you are involved with.

We would be very grateful if you and your fellow board members would take part in the survey, which you can fill out until the deadline of Friday 22 September. Thanks in advance.

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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