Tania Mason: Should charities have a voice in the national conversation?

16 Nov 2023 Voices

In this article, Tania Mason looks at what trustees think about charities having a voice in the national conversation...

By nicklivyi, Adobe

There is plenty of food for thought in the results of our first-ever survey exploring what trustees think about charities having a voice in the national conversation, but for me, two findings stand out.

The first is that four in five trustees do want to see more charity CEOs have a public profile and take part in public discourse. Only one person in 10 did not think this was appropriate (the rest weren’t sure). Hurrah! I’d say that’s a pretty positive mandate.

But the second finding that struck me seemed somewhat at odds with this. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said their board had never discussed the extent to which their charity’s CEO is encouraged or permitted to comment in public. Even among charities that count themselves as campaigning organisations, 52% of trustees said this had never been discussed.

So we want CEOs to have a higher profile and make themselves heard on the important issues of the day, but in most cases we, their boards, have not actually told them so? Perhaps there is a simple – and easily rectified – reason that we don’t hear more from our sector leaders in public discourse.

It also feels to me as if this whole issue is becoming ever more pertinent for the sector.

Readers may have seen recent social media posts criticising parts of civil society for staying silent on the war in Gaza. Supporters of both Israelis and Palestinians railed against the “institutional silence” from the sector. Of course, there are some civil society actors that we have heard from loud and clear – those brave humanitarian organisations working on the frontline in the war zone, such as ActionAid, whose updates have been shocking and heartbreaking in equal measure. But for those charities whose cause bears little or no direct relation to the conflict, how should they respond to such an horrific and upsetting, but deeply divisive situation? Taking a public stand could alienate some supporters and spark a backlash that sucks up already scarce resources; but it appears that not doing so can draw anger and condemnation too.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer; in every such deliberation, every charity will come to a different conclusion. Speaking up on any issue can carry risks; it is up to each individual organisation in each individual circumstance to decide whether these outweigh the risks of staying silent.

But this is a conversation that boards should be having with their CEO well before such issues arise. As many of our survey respondents advised, having an agreed communications policy and some rules of engagement with clear boundaries helps to ensure that everybody is on the same page when matters crop up that might warrant the charity’s response.

While the events in Gaza might feel a million miles outside your charity’s natural habitat, the profound threats now facing humanity from wars, artificial intelligence and climate change will impact all of us and all of our causes. Often it is charities that understand better than anyone what those impacts will be. Increasingly, we may find ourselves talking less about our “right” to speak out, and more about our obligation.

Governance & Leadership is a bi-monthly publication which helps charity leaders and trustees on their journey from good practice to best practice. Written by leading sector experts each issue is packed with news, in-depth analysis and real-life case studies of best practice in charitable endeavour and charity governance plus advice and guidance straight from the regulator. Find more information here and subscribe today!


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