Politics has no place in a charity (Robert Henderson)

by Robert Henderson

There are many aspects of modern charities which run contrary what is still, despite all the bad publicity charities have had in recent years, the general public’s idea of what a charity should be; an organisation which is doing good works by raising money from individuals, is the reverse of self-serving and a morally good thing.

There is much dislike about modern charities. They are frequently incompetently run, often too much of a charity’s income goes on administration, especially the pay of the senior staff, embezzlement by the staff of charities is too frequent for comfort and larger charities often take much of their funding from the state. However, those weaknesses are not the subject of this piece. What I am concerned with here is the political aspect of charities in Britain, an aspect which seems to loom ever larger.

Charities in Britain are very often overtly political, using much of their income to lobby politicians, pay for what are essentially political adverts and research which is no better than propaganda. The Charity Commission’s rules forbid charities being set up for a political purpose , charities campaigning for a political party or charities campaigning for a political end which does not accord with the declared purposes of the charity. Charities may lobby politicians and engage in campaigns which are inherently political to their heart’s content provided they observe these rules. The full Charity Commission Guidance on political activity by charities can be found here . In summary it is :

To be a charity an organisation must be established for charitable purposes only, which are for the public benefit. An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.

Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake.

However, political campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. Unlike other forms of campaigning, it must not be the continuing and sole activity of the charity. (Section D5 provides a fuller explanation.)

There may be situations where carrying out political activity is the best way for trustees to support the charity’s purposes. A charity may choose to focus most, or all, of its resources on political activity for a period. The key issue for charity trustees is the need to ensure that this activity is not, and does not become, the reason for the charity’s existence.

Charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions (as detailed in this guidance in section C4) where such change would support the charity’s purposes. Charities can also campaign to ensure that existing laws are observed.

However, a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party, or securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions either in this country or abroad.

In the political arena, a charity must stress its independence and ensure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced. A charity must not give support or funding to a political party, nor to a candidate or politician.

A charity may give its support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes. However, trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member (in this context we mean personal or party political views).

As with any decision they make, when considering campaigning and political activity charity trustees must carefully weigh up the possible benefits against the costs and risks in deciding whether the campaign is likely to be an effective way of furthering or supporting the charity’s purposes.

When campaigning, charity trustees must comply not only with charity law, but other civil and criminal laws that may apply. Where applicable they should also comply with the Code of the Advertising Standards Authority.

A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material, where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign. Such material must be factually accurate and have a legitimate evidence base.

The principles of charity campaigning and political activity are the same, whether the activity is carried out in the United Kingdom or overseas.

These rules allow charities to quite legally act as campaign groups and lobbyists and in practice charities often get away with throwing over even the mild restraints that the Charity Commission imposes.

Why should their politicisation be a concern? Because such behaviour undermines the very idea of a charity, which generally is to pursue unambiguously beneficent ends. Bring the pursuit of political ends into the picture and the moral purity of the charity is tarnished. I would also doubt whether the general public would want the state the state to provide privileges such as tax breaks for charities while they press their own political agendas.

Which charities now existing should have their status removed?

Where a charity receives a substantial part of its income from state bodies, as many of the larger ones now do, the use of the money to campaign for a political end is doubly unwarranted, for charities which receive money from public funds are not really charities at all but subcontracted arms of the state. Receipt of state money should mean no charitable status. (The practice of politicking is strong amongst charities which receive substantial funds from the public purse).

The donation of money by non-state bodies such as limited companies or organisations which are not commercial enterprises , for example trade unions, should be banned where the donations are such as to promote the interests of the donor.

Individual donations should be left to the discretion of the donor, but the charity should be legally obliged to provide the name of any donor providing more than 5% of a charity’s donations in any financial year, together with details of the person’s background including their political and commercial interest if they have them.

Some types of charity are too inescapably political to be charities. These include those concerned with human rights, immigration, race relations and charities which promote the cause of particular groups (especially ethnic minorities).

Charities which support criminality either directly through or indirectly, for example, by supplying goods and services which release funds to be spent on criminal activities such as terrorism. Good examples are Islamic charities which overtly or covertly support terrorism. There is also the problem of ostensibly legitimate mainstream charities donating to other charities which have links to terrorists.

Think Tanks which do nothing but produce reports and papers for discussion should not be charities because by definition they are not providing active relief of suffering or directly promoting something which is socially valuable.

Charitable status should only be granted for charitable work undertaken in the UK. The British taxpayer should not subsidise by the granting of tax relief work which does not benefit Britons.

Whether or not a charity currently pursuing political ends under the present rules receives money from the state, they should no longer have charitable status if they insist on political campaigning. They should sail under their true colours as political organisations and be subject to the same rules as other non-charitable bodies. Such organisations could be profit-making or non-profit-making and be treated as other political organisations which are not charities are treated.

None of the exclusions I have proposed mean that people will not be able to donate funds to whatever cause they wish to donate. All it means is that such donations will go to organisations which no longer have the tax privileges or the moral status of a charity.

What work should charities do?

They should be reformed to be what the general public thinks a charity should be, a beneficent organisation giving active help to people and other indisputable good causes which draws its money not from the state but from private donations drawn only from individuals. To this end charities should exist simply to provide goods and services to ameliorate the deficiency that they ostensibly were founded to lessen, whether that be the alleviation of an obvious need such as poverty or sickness or to provide something which is not an absolute need but which will be socially valuable such as specialist types of education such as music schools.

What would this mean in practice? Let me give a few examples.

1. Oxfam would cease to engage in political campaigning and concentrate solely on providing help to the poor.

2. Medical charities would cease to lobby for more government spending on medicine and concentrate solely on providing treatment and support to sufferers.

3. The RSPCA and the RSPB would confine themselves to providing for the welfare of animals by funding care for abandoned animals and purchasing land to provide habitat for specific wild species .

The advantages of these changes

The removal of politics from charities and of the state subcontracting to charities would change the relationship between the public and charities for the better, because the reality of charities would then be much closer to both their traditional role and the present day perception of what a charity should be in the public mind. That would be likely to increase donations.

Charities would be much less susceptible to political or commercial influence if they do not take money from the state or private corporations.

The changes would remove large swathes of charities which are manifestly not in the national interest . Any work overseas would not be classed as charitable and the army of human rights, immigration and ethnic minority charities would cease to be charities.

The type of person attracted to charity work would probably change significantly if the political aspect was removed. The charities which were left would have to concentrate on providing practical aid to the causes which they espouse. People would join because they wanted to be ministering directly to ends of the charity.


  1. I believe that no charity engaging in political campaigning should get any taxpayer money (actually I am very doubtful about charities that do not engage in political campaigning getting taxpayer money – but that is another question).

    I will not say more – as there is case before Kettering Borough Council (involving a complaint by a UKIP Councillor) against a taxpayer funded group, at this time.

  2. The charity industry is, and always has been, predominantly interested in political and/or social reform. There are certainly some charities who are genuinely just charitable- soup for tramps, etc- but the big charities which developed from the Victorian era onwards have always been predicated on some form of missionary work and that is the basic model.

    Which is why in my view official charitable status should be abolished. If somebody wants to run a business that makes no accounting profit and campaigns for social ends, that is their right. But they should not be given State privileges of any kind.

    Business taxes ought to be abolished probably anyway, which would solve the whining about “being taxed twice” (in fact we are all taxed over and over again in an endless loop anyway; economies are circulatory). But no other special favours.

    Let people associate for whatever reasons they like- in businesses, clubs, communes, friendly societies, whatever. What goes on within those organisations, so long as no negative rights are infringed, is not a matter for the State.

    • Ian B – “The charity industry is, and always has been, predominantly interested in political and/or social reform.”

      Not so. It is really only in the past 150 years or so that charities were routinely diverted from charitable purposes to politicking. Until then charities overwhelmingly concentrated upon relieving poverty, education and providing medical care.

      • Well, yes, my “always” refers to the charity industry that arose out of Victorianism, not to ancient benevolence (mostly Church related, cloakf for the poor folk of the parifh” kind of stuff).

  3. And of course the State should not be giving taxpayers’ money to any organisation, period. If we accept a State existing (i.e. minarchist rather than anarchist) it will need to purchase goods and hire contractors for various practical means. But no money should be given to help a business, a charity, or any other corporate body.

  4. Actually Octavia Hill and C.S. Locke (the main charity organisers of the late Victorian period) were against state intervention.

    Indeed C.S. Locke (of the Charity Organisation Society) was one of the main people in support of the Majority Report on the Poor Law in the early 1900s – the people in support of the collectivist “Minority Report” (which went on to dominate government policy in the 20th century) were Fabians who had never helped the poor, with their own hands, in their lives.

    It is only when charities started to get government funding (and be staffed by paid people from adverts in the Guardian newspaper) that charities fundamentally changed.

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