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Regulator confirms charity staff’s freedom of expression rights in social media guidance

18 Sep 2023 News

The Charity Commission has published its first-ever guidance on charities’ use of social media, following a consultation earlier this year.

Its guidance, which is published amid its engagement with RSPB over social media posts that called government ministers “liars”, says that charities “can engage on emotive issues” as long as they align with their purpose.

It says that charity trustees and employees “have the right to exercise their freedom of expression” through social media and that the Commission does not expect individuals’ accounts to be monitored.

However, it says that trustees should consider action if they become aware of a social media post by an individual linked to their organisation “having a negative effect on the charity”.

Using social media in riskier contexts

Trustees are currently not always aware of the risks that may arise through using social media, the regulator said, meaning that some do not have sufficient oversight of their charity’s activity, leaving them and their charity vulnerable.

The guidance states social media “can be a powerful communication tool for charities” but it can increase the risk of posting content that is inappropriate or harmful.

It says that content, once posted, can be hard to undo and professional and personal lives can overlap meaning “the line can become blurred”.

The guidance states: “Using social media in riskier contexts can attract significant public interest or criticism. The potential for criticism can be mitigated by the trustees ensuring that the charity conducts its activity with respect and tolerance.”

Nonetheless, it adds: “Trustees, charity employees and any other individuals have the right to exercise their freedom of expression within the law in their communications, including when using social media.”

This includes personally supporting a particular political party or during an election or a particular candidate, something a charity cannot do.

However, trustees should be aware of the potential for content posted by individuals in their personal capacity being associated with the charity.

There is no expectation that trustees monitor personal social media accounts, the guidance adds, but if they become aware of content posted or shared by an individual being associated with and having a negative effect on the charity “they should consider what action to take to protect the charity”.

It states the regulator does not expect that every charity will involve trustees in the day-to-day running of the charity’s social media but that trustees must understand their legal responsibilities even if delegating tasks.

The guidance adds that charities should have guidelines to manage the risk that content posted by individuals connected to the charity in their personal capacity, particularly those who are high profile like CEOs, may negatively impact the charity by association. 

Commission: ‘Trustees need to be alive to the risks’

Paul Latham, director of communications and policy at the Charity Commission, said: “There are many benefits to using social media, which can be an effective tool for campaigning, communicating with the public and reaching new and existing supporters. 

“However, trustees need to be alive to the risks it can generate, including to a charity’s reputation. We have published this guidance because we want trustees to think carefully about what they want to achieve when using social media and then apply our guidance to help ensure their charity is protected.

“We know trustees are busy and don’t expect them to be social media experts. Our guidance is also clear that their oversight need only be proportionate. However, it is the duty of trustees to act responsibly, in their charity’s best interests, and in line with the law. This includes when posting online. 

“Our guidance will help charities to navigate their use of social media with greater confidence and will support the Commission to regulate this high profile and fast paced area in a fair and balanced way.”

Today’s guidance follows a formal consultation, which ran from January to March 2023, and received 396 responses. 

The Commission said some felt it could be clearer to explain what is and is not expected of trustees, so the regulator has made a number of changes to clarify the Commission’s regulatory expectations in light of the feedback. 

NCVO: We are grateful to the Commission for listening to concerns

Sarah Vibert, chief executive of NCVO, said: “We welcome this updated guidance from the Charity Commission, which will help charities to set appropriate policies for their social media presence.

“These latest changes help ensure charities are able to effectively and efficiently maximise the opportunities that social media bring to ensure they are able to meet their charitable objectives.

“We are grateful to the Commission for listening to concerns and feedback from NCVO members, and ensuring they were addressed in the latest revised guidance.

“This latest update to the guidance clearly reiterates the legitimate role of charities to campaign if it is in the interests of meeting their charitable objectives.

“We hope the new guidance will give trustees and sector leaders the confidence, and clarity on the parameters, they need to use social media well in their vital work.”

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