Policy, campaigns & research, General Election 2024 Resources Hub

General Election checklist: speak out but protect your charity

Jay Kennedy offers his tips for speaking out during the election period.

The General Election is finally upon us, with the big vote called for 4 July. DSC encourages charities to engage with the political process and to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries and charitable causes, within the law.

It’s legitimate for charities to campaign and to engage with politics and politicians as long as it doesn’t stray into supporting particular political parties or candidates. If you’re unsure, the best starting point is to consult the Charity Commission’s guidance.

The Commission has also published a summary of lessons from previous elections, including helpful questions for trustees to consider from recurring themes in previous regulatory cases, and guidance for prospective parliamentary candidates in a Q&A format. Although this is not aimed at charities specifically, it’s really helpful for those charities who may be hosting events or meetings with candidates during the election period. If you’re planning any meetings with candidates take a look at this guidance and share it with them so they’re aware

Charity staff, trustees and volunteers all have a role to play in protecting their charity from falling foul of the rules but also in maintaining its reputation. This could be a nasty and divisive election campaign, and charities may unwittingly find themselves in the firing line from some politicians and the media. Some simple things to think about can help you stay on the right side of the rules and out of the headlines for the wrong reasons:

1. Consider the blurry line between personal and professional social media use

People involved with charities have the right to freedom of expression and political views just like everyone else. But actions and statements that individuals make on social media might reflect on the charity and affect its reputation. The Charity Commission advises charities that use social media to have a policy and to be clear about who has authority to post on behalf of the charity and to remove content.

Especially during the election period, double-check relevant social media accounts to see if they inadvertently contain symbols, pictures or slogans that could be seen to support particular parties or candidates. If an individual staff member, volunteer or trustee is going to be politically active in a serious way, for example by canvassing for a political party, it’s a good idea for them to set up separate accounts to any they might use for work, and to make the distinction crystal clear.

2. Be extra aware of your public statements and how they reflect on the charity

Particularly if you’re strongly associated with the charity, for example as the Chair, CEO, senior manager, or ambassador, it’s harder to disentangle statements made on behalf of the charity from personal statements. The internet is a form of publication and journalists won’t necessarily make any distinction between personal and professional comment. Just having ‘opinions my own’ in your social media bio likely won’t cut it. If in doubt, when making a public comment or speaking in public in a way that could be construed as influencing voters or supporting a particular party or candidates, make it clear that you’re doing so in your own capacity, not speaking on behalf of the charity.

3. Know your facts, and stick to them

Let’s face it, many politicians don’t set a great example when it comes to being truthful or misrepresenting facts and evidence. Passions can run high during election campaigns and there are already arguments and counter-arguments about facts and figures flying around. It’s right that people involved with charities bring passion and emotion to their causes, but they should avoid getting dragged into the same bad behaviours. Ground your arguments in your own charity’s objectives and mission, using robust facts and evidence to prove your points, for example with evidence or data drawn from your own organisation’s work.

4. Trustees may need to take extra care in their governance duties

Some charities will have politically active trustees or staff and some may even be seeking election themselves. Boards need to think carefully about how to manage this and how decisions are made especially during the election period, particularly around campaign-related content or communications. For example, a particular trustee may need to recuse themselves from certain decisions or from speaking on behalf of the charity for the duration of the campaign. Or a staff member may need to go on leave for the period of the campaign if they are standing for election.

Boards may also need to set aside extra time to scrutinise public affairs plans or to approve lines to take on certain issues. However, meetings may not have been scheduled in advance due to the unexpected timing of this campaign so these should be organised as soon as possible. Always properly document the board’s decisions, because that’s what regulators like the Charity Commission will look at should things go wrong.

5. Remind staff and volunteers of relevant organisational policies and procedures

Re-brief your communications and social media policies to staff, and make sure that pathways are clear for any crisis comms – for example who’s in charge of drafting and authorising press statements and informing senior managers and trustees of any negative press stories. Leaders should encourage respectful dialogue about the election and its potential implications amongst staff and volunteers, but frame it around the charity’s mission and beneficiaries and how the election may impact them. It’s also a good idea to facilitate time for staff and volunteers to vote on polling day – democracy is important!

6. Seek help and advice from national federations and infrastructure organisations

Lots of charities are federated – either as independent charities which sign up to a national framework or as local branches of a national charity. Local engagement can be hugely important, for example with prospective candidates for parliament, but maintaining regulatory compliance and consistency of key messages can be a bit tricky for head offices. So, check out the latest guidance from the federation (if you have one) about shared messages and priorities. Infrastructure organisations, sector-specific membership organisations, and law firms with expertise on charity law can also help with advice and guidance.

Although it’s important to be aware of and manage potential risks during a General Election, it’s also important to factor in the risk of not bringing the needs and interests of your charity’s beneficiaries to the attention of politicians. This is especially true this time, because there could be a change of government and we’ll have a large number of new MPs in the next Parliament. The period of the election itself may be one where it’s hard to cut through the noise, but relationships formed over the coming weeks could also produce dividends in the future.

So: don’t be put off, and don’t sit it out. Take a reasonable approach to risk management during the General Election, and campaign with confidence!