Recent pronouncements by Orlando Fraser, Chair of the Charity Commission, about the tone of charitable campaigning, (in an article on 10 March and at an ACEVO conference on 22 March) don’t stand up to careful analysis. They will cause confusion among Trustees and charity staff.
It is encouraging that he robustly defends our right to campaign, speak on behalf of those who have no voice, and speak uncomfortable truth to power. He does not want us to be deferential – timid trustees, please note.
But he goes on to tell charities that they have a responsibility to model a better kind of public discourse. What does that mean? This is where the trouble starts. He offers various criteria to define “better”:
- We should avoid “inflammatory language” and seek to “reduce the heated frenzy of aggressive debates”. We should not “trash the motivation” of those who disagree.
- We should not “respond in combative terms to Government proposals and language”.
- Charity leaders should “use their voices with kindness, respect and tolerance”.
- They should realise that “to win people over, they need to walk towards them, not push them away”.
- Charities’ campaigning, he is reported as telling his ACEVO audience, should be “separate to the political fray”.
Inconsistent and ambiguous criteria
The first problem is that these criteria are different from each other and are subject to different interpretation. When the Archbishops of Canterbury and York introduced a major debate in the House of Lords on the subject of asylum, and roundly criticised key aspects of Government proposals, they were, I guess in many people’s opinion, being “combative”, though hardly exhibiting “heated frenzy”.
They were “respectful” in the sense of being personally courteous but not at all “kind, respectful or tolerant” about the Government’s language and policies towards refugees.
They were not “separate to the political fray” because they were part of it and seeking to shape it, though obviously not in a party-political spirit. What on earth are the Archbishops, churches, other faith groups and the wider charitable sector to make of such ambiguous advice?
Understanding the realities of campaigning
The second problem is that it seems Orlando Fraser doesn’t really understand how campaigning, and political activity more generally, work in real life. Take the huge and successful campaign, led by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and its allies, to protect the Green Belts from the intended free market laissez-faire policies of the Thatcher Government.
That campaign was combative all right. It was part of the political fray all right. It was intolerant of the Government’s proposals, and it wasn’t “kind”. It was about the cause of environmental protection and preserving the difference between town and country in England.
It is utterly unrealistic to suppose that “walking towards” the Government and being kindly and tolerant would have won them over. I remember the then Chief Executive of CPRE saying that mutually respectful, fruitful dialogue with the Government only became possible after a formidable show of strength by angry residents of many Conservative shires and their MPs responding to the campaigning messages of CPRE and other charities.
The abolition of slavery, like many other progressive reforms that are now defined as charitable, was not achieved by “walking towards” the plantation owners and slave traders and being kind and respectful, and it would be naïve to think otherwise – each different situation requires its own analysis and strategy.
Moreover, charities have multiple audiences in the public domain. The campaigning messages to rally supporters or raise funds, and show their users that they are on their side, understand their anger and will give voice to them, will be different from a letter to Ministers or a draft speech written for a Peer or MP or local councillor or a briefing for the Legislature. The tone will and should vary.
And each subject area has its ecosystem of charities: some are shouty, some are cerebral, some are strong on the inside track of lobbying, others are outsiders knocking at the door. They attract and represent different strands of the public. There is no one-size-fits-all tone for charities generally.
Fraser’s generalisations do not do justice to these realities.
Confusing the Commission’s Existing Guidance
The third problem is that this comes across as ambiguous advice on the hoof, which is the opposite of the clarity and consistency which the sector deserves from its regulator.
It is right that the pronouncements of the Chair of the Commission should be taken seriously, but that in turn means that they should be very carefully weighed and thought through, which these are not. Let us remember that CC9 itself says:
“A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign.”
That is carefully considered authoritative guidance, and it is a backward step for the Chair to try to insert sundry glosses of his own that risk confusing the Commission’s own guidance.
Who is competent to decide the right tone?
Fourthly, Fraser repeatedly implies that there is a divide between the personal views of charity leaders on the one hand, and the best interests of their cause and beneficiaries on the other.
The inference is that unspecified charity leaders are expressing combative, unkind and disrespectful personal views and thereby damaging the best interests of their cause. That is fairly “disrespectful” to the charity leaders in question – we don’t know if he was including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York – and the many other leaders of charities who are constantly judging at any particular time what kind of campaigning tone as well as substance will best advance their cause.
The fact is that those leaders are generally better able to understand what is in the best long-term interests of their beneficiaries and cause than the Chair of the Charity Commission. It is a judgement for Trustees to make, not for him.
Trust and Confidence of “the Public”?
It is true that Trustees should also remember their accountability to the public at large, who as taxpayers afford special privileges to charities, but never by compromising what they judge to be in the best interests of their beneficiaries.
The public is not monolithic, and of course is not synonymous with the headlines of particular newspapers or particular groups of politicians. Many charities pursue causes that are unpopular; their campaigns have always divided opinions, sometimes bitterly in the short term even when wholly successful and admired in the longer run.
The Commission’s area of authority is surely what is lawful and justifiable when charities pursue their objectives, as per their own guidance, and to hold Trustees themselves fully responsible for deciding how best to conduct their campaigning within the law in the best interests of their beneficiaries. The Commission should not be tempted to substitute its own judgement for that of Trustees, and be suitably humble about their ability to represent the views of “the public”.
My strong advice to Trustees of charities for whom campaigning and wider political activity is a significant part of advancing their cause is this. Stick to CC9, which is the official guidance.
As we have seen from his two predecessors, the opinions of Chairs of the Commission often float away into oblivion, because they do not have the weight, the clarity, the carefully considered reliability of official guidance, especially when they stray beyond the Commission’s core area of authority. In general, Orlando Fraser has made a good start as Chair, and it is an uncharacteristic mis-step to make pronouncements of such uneven quality.
One thought on “Orlando Fraser Muddies the Waters on Campaigning”
Sensible advice, thank you.