Policy, Policy, campaigns & research

Should charities be civil? Why? (Part One)

In the first of a two-part analysis, DSC Policy Trustee Andrew Purkis reflects on whether charities should be respectful and considerate – or, civil – in their public statements and campaigning, with key questions for trustees to consider. 

The Chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser, has repeatedly told charities that they have a responsibility to be respectful, considerate and kind in public debate, modelling a kind of discourse that is better than the public discourse of politicians and the media. He has linked this imperative to charities’ unique legal status, and to public expectations of charities.  

In my view and long experience of charity law and governance, this analysis is faulty, but he’s trying to say something important and we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

The Bathwater: A Faulty Analysis 

There are a number of problems with the Chair’s analysis. First among them is that there’s no apparent legal or case law basis for the contention that charities must adopt a particular style of discourse. Asserting that there is confuses the authoritative guidance of the Commission’s own guidance on campaigning and political activity, CC9, which does not include such a responsibility and is explicit that there’s no prohibition on being controversial or emotional. 

The vague language also isn’t helpful. What sort of “respect and kindness” should we show to those who are damaging our beneficiaries, for example enslaving and trafficking young women, torturing or neglecting animals, blocking public rights of way, decrying or minimising the threat of global warming? Vagueness is the enemy of helpful regulation. 

Similarly, there’s is no one-size-fits-all “correct” tone for charities, because they comprise a diverse ecosystem. Some are insider lobbyists, some are fighting injustices and amplifying the voice of the marginalised and oppressed. In the case of religious charities, some may be hellfire preachers like John Knox, others more academic like Richard Hooker. All are legitimate. 

The messages of campaigning charities throughout our history have frequently been heated, controversial and unpopular, and aroused bitter public opposition in the short term, even when they are regarded with hindsight as beneficial. Having the regulator involved in regulating or appearing to regulate something as nebulous as ‘tone’ is overreach. It is Trustees, not the Charity Commission, who should decide what is the proper tone for their communications. 

Before we dig deeper into the positive case for civility (in Part two), let us pinpoint two more questionable assumptions in the Chair’s advice.  

A Hint of Elitism? 

Firstly, the proposed superior model of discourse has, to me, a whiff of elitism. It seems to presume a world where, however hideous the injustice being perpetrated, the “correct” tone approximates to the courtesy of schooled members of a respectable class. The Chair has explained that if you meet your interlocutors half-way, you have a better chance of persuading them.  

Sometimes, but not always. Such discourse is miles away from the world of asserting human rights against oppression, saving the rainforests from rampant destruction, or empowering marginalised people to raise their voices. It seems to reflect an incomplete stereotype of “charity” from previous eras – that it should be just about bringing everyone together and making everyone feel better, rather than, in many cases, about solidarity, rights and, in many cases, necessary contention. 

False ideas about charities’ special behaviour 

Secondly, there’s the assumption that charities’ behaviour should be special and superior to other parts of society. But even the Commission’s own research isn’t a solid evidence base for this conclusion. Insofar as people know what is a charity and what isn’t (in truth, many don’t!) while the people sampled in the research did expect charities to be honest and open in the use made of their money, and to spend the money on the cause, especially on the front line, there’s little evidence of a different standard of expected behaviour, let alone ‘tone’. 

I don’t believe it’s realistic or even desirable to expect those working in charities to be better people or behave to higher standards than other people in public life. Whether in the national Civil Service and the NHS, local authorities, the police and armed services, the legal system, or charities, leaders should lead by example and do their best to conform to the Nolan principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. There are plenty of things that charities must or should do in order to advance their charitable causes for the public benefit, but being better behaved and a cut above other public servants isn’t one of them. 

Reframing the Question 

If there’s no one “correct” tone of discourse handed down from above for such a diverse sector, it’s best to reframe the question: if we are Trustees, what are the considerations we should bring to bear as we decide the best tone of our communications? That’s what we shall consider in Part Two.