Sua Sponte

The unwarranted ramblings of a charity solicitor.

What is the RSPB doing right?

Recently, I've been pondering the role of charities in society, prompted by the number of politicians who have been feeling an urge to weigh in on the subject.

Should they be (in the words of Brooks Newmark MP) 'sticking to their knitting?' Is Penny Mordaunt MP right when she says they should 'keep their focus on practical things?' Or are these the words of politicians afraid of being held to account for their actions in government...?

Then, two interesting pieces of research caught my eye last week on the subject of charities and campaigning.

New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) research

The first piece of research, produced by NPC, relates to public opinions of charities and their work, and does not look promising for charities thinking about campaigning. The headline message, it seemed, was clear:

"In a prompted question, nearly half of respondents (47%) agree with the statement ‘Charities should just concentrate on helping people in need, rather than campaigning to change society as a whole’, while 24% disagree." (page 7 of the NPC report)

Oh dear. That looks pretty decisive. A definite 'yes' to charities sticking to their knitting.

The RSPB research:

However, the other piece of research, mentioned in passing in a Civil Society article about the Charity Commission's rejection of complaints brought against the RSPB by two campaigning groups, seems to give a slightly different picture.

The RSPB carried out research last summer to see if it had support among its members for its campaigning activities. Almost 15,000 members (from its 1.1 million membership) responded to its survey. Figures shared with Civil Society revealed that of those consulted:

Obviously, we have far less information about those who took part in the RSPB research than the NPC research. However, the seemingly considerable difference in opinion between those taking part in the NPC research and the RSPB members surveyed may offer some hope to other charities wanting to campaign.

The first point to note, I think, is that in its survey of members the RSPB seems to have been careful to frame its campaigning activities within the context of achieving the charity's objects and purposes. Possibly, if the RSPB had simply asked its members if it should 'campaign to change society as a whole', using the same wording as the NPC research, its members would have come back with a very different response.

Interestingly, the NPC research found that those with low levels of confidence in charities were less likely to support campaigning activities by charities. This prompts me to wonder if the members' level of confidence in the RSPB is such that they are simply more relaxed about the RSPB campaigning than members of oth organisations might be, trusting it to act in the best interests of the charity to further its objects.

Finally, the NPC research also found:

I know that the RSPB has a sizeable junior membership, and possibly this also had something to do with the level of support for its campaigning. However, I do not know the breakdown of those responding to the RSPB survey by gender, age or political affiliation.

So, should charities campaign or not?

Whether or not politicians think charities should campaign (and I think we are likely to see a few more MPs coming out of the woodwork to complain about the activities of charities as the election approaches), it is clear that they have the right to do so. In some cases, their membership may even expect them to campaign.

However, of course, charities must stick to the Charity Commission's guidance on campaigning and, now, the Electoral Commission guidance on the wretched Lobbying Act 2014 .

For those disinclined to read the lengthy Electoral Commission guidance, the Directory for Social Change has produced a rather nice flow chart to give you a rough idea as to whether you do need to wade through the whole thing.

Personally, I think that if charities' campaigning activities are rattling politicians enough for MPs to start making the kind of statements we have heard recently, those charities are probably doing the right thing and should carry on.

Although, bearing in mind the NPC research, charities thinking about starting campaigning may possibly wish to check if their members are predominantly supporters of the Conservative Party or UKIP first, and factor that into their decision...