Charity campaigns and the 2024 General Election

Charity campaigns and the 2024 General Election: navigating the legal landscape

Pippa Garland (1)
Pippa Garland
4 min Read

The year 2024 has been labelled the ‘year of elections’, with more than half the world’s population eligible to vote in an election this year.

Our own election is expected to be held in the autumn and promises to be lively, with culture war politics, risks of AI generated ‘deepfakes’, and issues with voter ID looming large.

In the midst of this political maelstrom, many charities are eager to add their voices to the debate. However, they also face concerns about being caught in the crossfire, particularly in politically contentious areas such as immigration. So, how can charities make themselves heard while staying on the right side of the legal line and protecting themselves?

Many issues discussed in the run-up to the election will directly affect charities’ beneficiaries or otherwise align with organisations’ charitable purposes. As the chairs of the Charity and Electoral Commissions recently emphasised in a co-written blog post:Charities have a proud record of engaging in public debate and campaigning on behalf of their purposes which is entirely legitimate.” However, recent calls have been made, including by Orlando Fraser, Chair of the Charity Commission, for charity leaders to “remember their responsibilities” and “use their voice with kindness, respect and tolerance”. 

Navigating the legal parameters, both from a charity law and an electoral law perspective, is therefore critical. We discuss the key considerations below. 

Engaging in campaigning or political activity: the rules

Campaigning is a vital method used by many charities to advance the interests of their beneficiaries. “Campaigning” in this context of the Commission’s guidance encompasses raising awareness of an issue, attempting to influence public attitudes or corporate behaviour, and mobilising public support.

For instance:

  • An environmental charity may lobby prominent companies to adopt more stringent environmental standards. 
  • A domestic violence charity might run a campaign to educate the public about the prevalence of intimate partner violence. 

On the other hand, “political activity” is distinct and is defined as activity designed to secure (or oppose) a change in the law, or the policies or decisions of a public body.

Charities can engage in campaigning and political activity as long as it furthers their charitable purposes. However, they must remain independent of political parties and refrain from supporting specific parties, candidates, or politicians. Generally, there is no limit on the extent to which charities can undertake campaigning, however, as a charity cannot have a political purpose, political activity cannot be the only way in which a charity pursues its charitable purposes.  

Shelter’s campaign in support of the Renters (Reform) Bill provides a useful case study. As well as urging the government to progress the Bill, Shelter is campaigning for amendments to be made which would provide additional protection to tenants in the private rental sector. This political activity clearly supports the charity’s purposes.

Often, a charity’s position on an issue will coincide with that of a politician or political party. Charities can maintain and advocate for those positions, provided that they remain politically neutral and emphasise their independence from any party or candidate. A charity which consistently engages with one political party over others may no longer be perceived to be politically independent, so it is important to consider cross-party engagement where it is possible and appropriate.

Electoral Law requirements

Even before an election is called, the 12 months preceding an election are a “regulated period”. We are now in such a regulated period, where certain spending aimed at promoting electoral success is regulated.

Charities with a “sufficient UK connection” can spend up to £10,000 without notification to the Electoral Commission. Those intending to spend more must register as non-party campaigners and comply with the relevant spending limits. Particular care should be taken when charities are acting jointly, as the spending limit applies to the overall spend, rather than each individual charity’s spend.  Registered non-party campaigners should also note that donations over £500 in value (or £7,500 in aggregate from a single source) intended for regulated expenditure must be reported to the Electoral Commission after the election in a post-election spending return.

Recent reforms aimed at reducing overseas interference in our elections mean that overseas charities now have a greatly reduced spending limit of £700. Registered non-party campaigners can also only accept donations for regulated activity from donors with a sufficient UK connection. 

Election period considerations

Once the election has been called, the Commission’s “Charities, Elections and Referendums” supplementary guidance applies. The key principle here is the independence of charities: they cannot encourage people to vote for one candidate or party over another.

Charities must not:

  • Accept a political party’s request to appear in its manifesto. 
  • Explicitly compare their views with those of a particular candidate or party (although a charity can outline each party’s stance on a particular issue).

However, they can:

Practical considerations for trustees

Before engaging in campaigning or political activity, trustees should check the charity’s governing document for provisions or restrictions on this subject. They should also assess risks, including reputational risk if political independence is compromised. 

Navigating political campaigning for charities ahead of the 2024 general election #2

Navigating political campaigning for charities ahead of the 2024 general election

Our upcoming webinar brings together a distinguished panel of experts to provide invaluable insights into the legal and strategic considerations surrounding charity involvement in political campaigning.

Get in touch

If you would like to speak with a member of the team you can contact our charity law solicitors by email, by telephone on +44 (0)20 3826 7510 or complete our enquiry form.

Briefings Charities Charity campaigns 2024 General Election Campaigning Political Activity Charity Commission Electoral Law Requirements charity trustees