Andrew Purkis: Orlando Fraser is muddying the waters on campaigning

29 Mar 2023 Voices

The Charity Commission’s chair’s recent comments on how charities should campaign will cause confusion, writes Andrew Purkis.

Orlando Fraser, chair of the Charity Commission

Charity Commission

Recent pronouncements by Orlando Fraser, chair of the Charity Commission, about the tone of charitable campaigning, (in an article on 10 March and at an ACEVO conference on 22 March) don’t stand up to careful analysis. They will cause confusion among trustees and charity staff.

It is encouraging that he robustly defends our right to campaign, speak on behalf of those who have no voice, and speak uncomfortable truth to power. He does not want us to be deferential – timid trustees, please note.

But he goes on to tell charities that they have a responsibility to model a better kind of public discourse. What does that mean? This is where the trouble starts. He offers various criteria to define “better”:

  • We should avoid “inflammatory language” and seek to “reduce the heated frenzy of aggressive debates”. We should not “trash the motivation” of those who disagree.
  • We should not “respond in combative terms to government proposals and language”.
  • Charity leaders should “use their voices with kindness, respect and tolerance”.
  • They should realise that “to win people over, they need to walk towards them, not push them away”.
  • Charities’ campaigning should be “separate to the political fray”. 

Inconsistent and ambiguous criteria

The first problem is that these criteria are different from each other and are subject to different interpretation.

When the archbishops of Canterbury and York introduced a major debate in the House of Lords on the subject of asylum, and roundly criticised key aspects of government proposals, they were being “combative”, though hardly exhibiting “heated frenzy”. 

They were “respectful” in the sense of being personally courteous but not at all “kind, respectful or tolerant” about the government’s language and policies towards refugees. They were not “separate to the political fray” because they were part of it and seeking to shape it, though obviously not in a party-political spirit.

Understanding the realities of campaigning

The second problem is that it seems Orlando Fraser doesn’t really understand how campaigning, and political activity more generally, work in real life.

Take the huge and successful campaign, led by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and its allies, to protect the green belts from the intended free market laissez-faire policies of the Thatcher government. 

That campaign was combative all right. It was part of the political fray all right. It was intolerant of the government’s proposals, and it wasn’t “kind”. It was about the cause of environmental protection and preserving the difference between town and country in England. 

Moreover, charities have multiple audiences in the public domain. The campaigning messages to rally supporters or raise funds, and show their users that they are on their side, understand their anger and will give voice to them, will be different from a letter to ministers or a draft speech written for a peer or MP or local councillor or a briefing for the legislature.

And each subject area has its ecosystem of charities: some are shouty, some are cerebral, some are strong on the inside track of lobbying, others are outsiders knocking at the door. They attract and represent different strands of the public. There is no one-size-fits-all tone for charities generally.

Confusing the Commission’s existing guidance

The third problem is that this comes across as ambiguous advice on the hoof, which is the opposite of the clarity and consistency which the sector deserves from its regulator. 

It is right that the pronouncements of the chair of the Commission should be taken seriously, but that in turn means that they should be very carefully weighed and thought through, which these are not. Let us remember that CC9 itself says:

“A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign.” 

That is carefully considered authoritative guidance, and it is a backward step for the chair to try to insert sundry glosses of his own that risk confusing the Commission’s own guidance.

Who is competent to decide the right tone?

Fourthly, Fraser repeatedly implies that there is a divide between the personal views of charity leaders on the one hand, and the best interests of their cause and beneficiaries on the other. 

The inference is that unspecified charity leaders are expressing combative, unkind and disrespectful personal views and thereby damaging the best interests of their cause. 

But those leaders are generally better able to understand what is in the best long-term interests of their beneficiaries and cause than the chair of the Charity Commission. It is a judgement for trustees to make, not for him. 

The Commission’s area of authority is surely what is lawful and justifiable when charities pursue their objectives and to hold trustees themselves fully responsible for deciding how best to conduct their campaigning within the law in the best interests of their beneficiaries. The Commission should not be tempted to substitute its own judgement for that of trustees, and be suitably humble about their ability to represent the views of “the public”.


My strong advice to trustees of charities for whom campaigning and wider political activity is a significant part of advancing their cause is this. Stick to CC9, which is the official guidance. 

As we have seen from Fraser’s two predecessors, the opinions of chairs of the Commission often float away into oblivion, because they do not have the weight, the clarity, the carefully considered reliability of official guidance, especially when they stray beyond the Commission’s core area of authority. 

In general, Fraser has made a good start as chair, and it is an uncharacteristic misstep to make pronouncements of such uneven quality.

A fuller version of this article is available at:

Andrew Purkis is a charity trustee and has been chair or vice chair of eight UK charities, chief executive of others and was a board member of the Charity Commission from 2006 to 2010

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