Policy, Policy, campaigns & research

The self-censorship of charity leaders

With a General Election on the way this year, DSCs policy trustee Andrew Purkis reflects on how charity leaders can navigate the minefield of politics and public statements

It was in the 1990s that, passing a Church of England vicarage on my daily route to the London Underground, I noticed that the vicar – who subsequently became a well-known public figure – had Conservative Party election posters in every window facing the street. Possibly as a premonition of my future spell as a member of the Charity Commission Board, I put a note through the door suggesting that this was inappropriate. 

My argument was that the church should not be party political, that this was church (not merely private) property, used for church business as well as family, and that overt party-political bias was bound to risk subverting his ability to be the Father-in-God to parishioners who differ widely from each other on party political matters. 

His response arrived in my own letterbox. His defence was: 

  • The vicarage was his home and it was his human right to express his political views in the windows of his home; 
  • He had discussed it with his Churchwardens (two senior Trustees) who did not object, and he didn’t think it damaged his ministry 
  • The Archdeacon’s house had Labour Party election posters in its windows!! 

In those days, churches were still exempt charities, at arm’s length from the Charity Commission, and its interesting to speculate what view the Commission would take of such a case now that churches are now directly regulated by the Commission. I personally remain a hardliner: I think it’s wrong for what is clearly a charity’s property, used not just as a private dwelling, to be used to advertise for a particular political party. 

The reality of self-censorship in the social media age 

If you agree to lead a charity, there are many things you have the human right to do or say, that you nevertheless choose not to do because it might run counter to charity law or otherwise damage the best interests of your charity.  

For example, what sort of personal views do you choose to share publicly, whether on party politics or other matters extraneous to your charitable cause, especially if you are a well-known charity leader? 

This was one of the contested issues in the debate about the Charity Commission’s recent guidance about the use of social media. On the one hand, surely one must have the right to express opinions as an individual on social media? On the other hand, social media are public, not private, and therefore if people know you are a charity leader, there should be self-discipline about saying things that might damage the perceived party-political impartiality of your charity.  

The same discipline extends to saying other things publicly that run counter to the official line of your charity; and even to controversial statements that are outside the area of your charity’s objects but could nevertheless get right up the noses of many supporters or potential donors or interlocutors in government. You don’t usually undo any resulting harm by protesting you were only speaking as an individual – because you were speaking publicly and are closely associated with the charity you lead. 

Sticking to your charity’s area of expertise and authority?  

Similarly, its surely a good general guideline for a charity, and its leaders, to stick in any charity communications to its area of authority and expertise – though defining the limits of that expertise is sometimes not straightforward. The privileges of charity status and the gifts of supporters are given to pursue the cause, not to use the charity, or our status as a charity leader, as platform for views on other matters. But at the same time, this can’t be an absolute prohibition. 

For example,  

  • If youre closely associated with a charity, does that mean you shouldn’t accept an invitation to appear on BBC Question Time, since you will then be called to give your opinion on all sorts of matters outside your charity’s core expertise? Surely not. After all, this sort of opportunity could raise the profile of the organisation and cause. We also want charity leaders to be seen as significant and well-informed players in public debate. 
  • But should I express an opinion in public as a citizen on the latest polarised controversy that has nothing to do with my charity? To be weighed up in each case surely, but often: no. What matters is to ask and answer honestly: what’s my motivation for saying this? What am I achieving by joining in? Will it impact well or badly on the charity I lead? Will it affect those who support the charity or whom the charity wants to influence? Is there a harmless way of saying it? And is there someone else I could run it across before pressing the Send button? 

If it could damage the charity – keep it private 

These lines aren’t easy to draw and will vary according to the nature and circumstances of different charities. But one thing is clear, even if that Tory vicar and Labour Archdeacon wouldn’t agree. Those of us who lead charities, like prominent civil servants, policemen, judges, politicians and many others, must choose to exercise our human right to express our opinions, in any kind of public forum, selectively, and carefully. 

In our case specifically what we do and say must be  

Otherwise, keep it private!