Policy, campaigns & research

Using Your Voice in an Election Year - event highlights

Here's some useful information on charity campaigning from our recent event 'Using Your Voice in an Election Year'.

At the ‘Using Your Voice in an Election Year’ event, we had the privilege of hearing from experts in charity campaigning. Rosamund McCarthy Etherington, Co-Head for the Charity Sector at Stone King LLP and Andrew Purkis, DSC’s Policy Trustee, offered their wisdom and reassurance to help us understand the laws and regulations surrounding charity campaigning.

In case you weren’t able to join us, here are a handful of key insights from the event:

Charities can and should campaign during an election period  

Charities and other organisations can continue to campaign in the run up to the General Election and even during the General Election itself, in conjunction with the following guidance and regulations:  

The Charity Commission’s guidance does not cover election law, which is regulated by the Electoral Commission. Charities are prohibited from supporting particular parties or candidates. However, they can campaign and influence the political system in service of their charitable objects, including during election periods. Depending on the content, tone, and timing, some of their activities may be caught by electoral law and require registration with the Electoral Commission.   

Charities should maintain their independence  

It’s important that your charity maintains its independence from politicians and political parties, especially if its policy positions are similar to those of a political party.   

Here are some other points from the Charity Commission that you should be aware of:  

  • Charities can’t appear in an apolitical party’s manifesto. However, they can publish manifestos to persuade political parties to adopt their policies, which is a common practice.  
  • Organisations can ask candidates for their views on the charity’s policies or to sign pledges of support but be conscious that scoring candidates or parties on issues could be interpreted under electoral law as intending to influence voters. 
  • Charities can invite candidates to an event or hustings, but should aim to include a range of parties and be balanced, without favouring one party over another. 
  • Charities can exclude a candidate if their policies aren’t compatible with the charity’s purposes. However, you should be careful with excluding candidates, as you may be caught out by election law for inadvertently giving support or prejudice towards a candidate.  

We’re now in a regulated period for the General Election 

Election law is regulated by the Electoral Commission and concerns how elections take place and the rules about spending on elections. It also regulates the activities of ‘non-party campaigners’ which can include unions, businesses and not-for-profit organisations such as charities and voluntary groups, during the ‘regulated period’, which is 365 days before the General Election. Because the next general election has to be held by 28 January 2025, we are now in a regulated period. This applies to ‘non-party campaigners’ as well as political parties. 

The Electoral Commission registers organisations that incur ‘controlled expenditure’ during the election and it records that information. This includes things like canvassing, pamphlets, and organising rallies. Charities need to be conscious of any spending that ‘could reasonably be interpreted as intending to influence voters to vote in a particular way’. This is known as the ‘purpose test’.  

Electoral law maintains that spending on campaigning activity will be regulated if:  

  • It meets the purpose test  
  • It takes place during the ‘regulated period’ 
  • Campaign materials are made available to the public  
  • It’s above the spending thresholds.  

Charities can avoid registering with the Electoral Commission by ensuring their campaign spending remains below the relevant thresholds.  

Want to know more about this? Read Jay Kennedy’s article here.  

Charities’ influence in public debate is integral to the progression of civil society  

DSC’s Trustee, Andrew Purkis, highlighted the importance of charity campaigning throughout history during the event. If you have nervous trustees who are fearful of getting involved in campaigning during an election period, Purkis said to remind them of these three points:   

  1. Charities’ influence in public debate has been a fundamental part of the sector’s contribution to society for centuries.  
  2. Stereotypes of gentle charities are incomplete and misleading on historical and factual grounds.  
  3. An election is a time of opportunity in which charities have a responsibility to consider what they can do for their cause. The risks of inactivity and staying out of it have to be weighed against the risks of joining in. 

Knowing the laws and regulations that the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission set out will help you campaign confidently over this electoral period. If you want to know more about charity campaigning, then take a look at our new Speed Read by Jay Kennedy, DSC’s Director of Policy and Research. It will provide you with everything you need to know, including lots of information on the current laws and guidance. Learn more here.