Policy, Policy, campaigns & research

Should charities be civil? Why? (Part Two)

In the second of a two-part analysis, DSC Policy Trustee Andrew Purkis addresses key questions for charity trustees to think about in their charity’s public statements and campaigning.

In Part One we argued that the advice offered by the Chair of the Charity Commission, that charities have a responsibility to model a better type of public discourse, kind, considerate and respectful, was flawed, but that we shouldn’t throw the baby away with the bathwater.  

While there may be no one-size-fits-all “correct” tone laid down from above (the bathwater), Trustees do need to bring to bear some important considerations in deciding on the best tone of their communications. What does this baby look like? 

How civil? Issues for Trustees 

The most important consideration is: what kind and tone of communication is in the best long-term interests of our beneficiaries? Within that are a host of subsidiary questions. Such as:  

  • How can we grow and diversify our supporter base?  
  • What constraints if any on our public pronouncements must we recognise from our funders (and potential funders)?  
  • How do we balance the need for our communications to be clear and simple with the need to convince policy-makers that we are serious and understand the complexities of real life?  
  • What do the agreed values of the charity imply for our mode of public discourse?  
  • Depending on our theory of change, who are our most important audiences, and how are they most effectively addressed?  

The answers will be as varied as charities are. 

As part of that consideration, there’s the question of long-term credibility, if you are the sort of charity that wants to persuade influential elements of public opinion and decision-makers. Exaggeration and oversimplified presentation of issues is tempting but can have a cost in loss of impact, reputation and some forms of support. Inaccuracy has a higher cost. Dishonesty is a yet higher cost. In my opinion, these are potentially far more lethal to reputation and effectiveness than righteous anger or unkindness towards those harming our beneficiaries.  

The Nolan Principles of Public Life 

In fact, so far from the behaviour of charities needing to be unique and special, we are back to the Nolan principles that apply right across public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. These principles were developed as ethical standards for civil servants and holders of public office, but also offer a sound basis for trustees to think about their behaviour and the tone of the charity’s communications. If we want to be a respected, influential sector of society, we should strive to embody those principles that set the standard for all those participating in public life. In my view, they are key to building and maintaining a charity’s long-term reputation and effectiveness. 

Avoid participating in a race to the bottom 

There’s another consideration for Trustees (and all of us) that’s not unique to charities. It was summed up for me by the philosopher Sasha Mudd in Prospect Magazine (Jan/Feb 2024) while talking about getting warring parties to live up to just war principles: “When the other side are perceived as savages who show no restraint, it is easy to believe they are owed no restraint in return. The bloody free-for-all that follows from this logic is the ultimate abasement of our humanity and makes no one safer in the long run.”  

The same is surely true of the verbal wars in social media and some mainstream media and broadcasting: if you treat other human beings with whom you disagree as if they were sub-human, they are likely to do the same to you and the cumulative effect is polarisation and people shouting abuse at each other from one echo-chamber to another, with the Nolan principles ground into the dust. Each time we play the person rather than the ball, we risk contributing to this process.  

That raises for Trustees the questions: as responsible participants in public life, should we have any part in that downward spiral? And is our cause likely to prosper in a world that is coarsening in that way – bearing in mind that the extremists, bigots and populists can always outgun their opponents if those are the chosen weapons? 


So here’s how I would reframe the Charity Commission Chair’s advice as crucial guidelines to charities about their public discourse. There’s an important core of truth in his plea for civility. But it needs to be grounded in something other than personal opinion, otherwise it muddles the regulator’s role. These are the considerations I would argue Trustees should bring to bear on their public communications: 

  1. They must do and say whatever they believe is the very best long-term way of advancing their cause for the public benefit. 
  2. They should adhere to the Nolan principles of public life. 
  3. They must operate within charity law and CC9. 
  4. Within that framework they should not shy away from criticism of individuals, contention, passion and forceful rhetoric where the cause requires it. 
  5. They should treat and refer to opponents as human beings and avoid the downward spiral of personal abuse, chronic polarisation and abasement where few charitable causes – or other noble aspirations for humanity – are likely to thrive. 

Above all, trustees should remember that their primary duty isn’t to the regulator, or politicians or the media. Their duty is to their charity, its charitable purposes, and the people and causes it serves. I hope above all that these reflections on the complex questions around ‘civility’ help trustees to fully consider and fulfil that overriding duty.