Social Media, the Charity Commission and Political Activity by Charities

In summary: a review (supported by the Charity Commission) of the risks posed to charities by their use of social media could be good, if done properly. But it would be illogical to muddle this with a Charity Commission review of CC9 in particular (The Charity Commission guidance on political activity by charities). That would be a very costly mistake. We should challenge those who are suggesting a “compromise” review of CC9 with special reference to social media.

From various quarters comes the message that nothing could be more reasonable than a review of CC9 to take account of social media. Perhaps some of those inside and outside the Commission think it could be a satisfactory way of diverting such a review away from fundamental issues of principle: appease the desire of the Charity Commission Board to be seen to be doing something about what they call the  “politicisation” of charities, leave the guts of CC9 intact, and twiddle and tweak to take account of social media instead. Nice little compromise?

No. There are three reasons why not.

Firstly, once the lid is opened on CC9 it would surely be impossible to stop those who want to gag or limit charity campaigning from expressing and submitting their views and forcing all the issues of principle onto the review agenda. From another angle, many charities would want to express their dissatisfaction with the way in which the Board of the Commission has muddled and undermined its own guidance since 2012 (see my blog of 21 April for a summary). The “compromise” would fall apart in no time.

Secondly, any review of CC9 will be costly in the time and energy of the sector, (and of the Commission with its tightened budget), destabilising, divisive and potentially politically explosive. Not exactly the “One Nation” approach demanded by the Prime Minister? Don’t forget that this time, the churches and other faith groups are no longer “exempt” charities and are now fully subject to Charity Commission regulation. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are in the frame, Cardinal Nicholls is in the frame, it’s not just Oxfam, Shelter, Christian Aid and War on Want as in the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s (see my blog of 8 April) . The Commission will be entering very deep, treacherous waters. There would need to be a compelling and accurate reason for embarking on such a costly course of action.

Thirdly, the risks posed by social media are not confined to political activity in particular. This is a cross cutting issue about the ability of Trustees (and where appropriate senior management) to maintain oversight and discipline over the messaging of their charity. Social media provide opportunities for individual charity trustees or staff members to make uninhibited, subjective remarks that can affect the reputation and branding of the charity. This could be in the subject area of intimate personal life, since social media can erode the boundaries between the personal, the individual and the public. An extreme example was the Temptation of Brooks Newmark, our former Minister for Civil Society, but less spectacular examples abound that could affect a charity’s reputation. It could equally be a carelessly expressed opinion or attitude that the charity’s stakeholders find offensive. It could be a tendentious claim for fundraising purposes. It could be something intemperate on any subject that is despatched over social media late at night when someone has had a few glasses of wine. It could be something religious and “extremist”. Yes, it could also be something that is party political or in other respects compromises the agreed positioning of the charity’s political activity, but that is only one of many subject areas in which the risks occur.

These risks are real. They are not all unique to social media, because we all know that trustees and staff can fall foul of such hazards by talking carelessly to journalists or at public gatherings or sending silly emails (drunk or sober) and texts. Nonetheless, social media multiply the opportunities. But the risks are generic. They must not be muddled with risks relating to political activity in particular. The correct response is not, illogically, to review CC9, but to review the risks of social media to charities.

Here are my unsolicited suggestions to the Charity Commission about a review of social media risks if these risks are felt to be sufficiently serious:

1. Do it properly, with expert help perhaps from a university. These problems are not unique to the charity sector, and we need to draw on expertise about the characteristics of social media, future trends, and collective experience across public, private and voluntary sector boundaries on how best to anticipate and mitigate the risks. A conventional consultation within the charity sector will not do the job.

2. Illuminate the different forms the risks can take in widely disparate subject areas. This is key. Focus on the generic issues. Leave more detailed application to particular subject areas (eg reputational risk, brand management, fundraising, political activity) to a possible second phase if needed.

3. Consider seriously doing this together with representatives of the sector, or even leave the sector to take the lead with Commission support. An NCVO working group has already made a start. This sort of exercise does not lend itself well to the current “Proud to be a Policeman” posture of the Commission. Those who have most reason to understand and mitigate the risks are charities themselves; they need to own these risks to their mission. A straitened Commission waving its truncheon will be comparatively ineffectual.

In conclusion: there is no sound case for reviewing CC9, which would be a costly and destabilising venture. Don’t muddle this with the generic risks of social media to the reputation of charities. If these risks are multiplying, focus on a review of social media risks to the charity sector and do it properly, with the full participation and ownership of sector leaders.

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