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Engaging with controversial or divisive issues - reflections for charities

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Governance, Guidance, Public Trust

People rightly have high expectations of charities, and when their actions cause controversy it is our job to listen carefully to those concerns and take robust action when necessary.

So as we conclude the National Trust case today, I’d like to reflect both on what is expected of charities when they engage with controversial or divisive issues, and on the role of the charity regulator when there are questions about a charity’s behaviour.

It is a central tenet of charity law – and a basic public expectation – that everything a charity does must be to further its charitable purpose, the basis on which people have donated money, property and time, potentially over many years. The law makes it clear that trustees have wide discretion about how they do this. It is therefore not for the Commission to tell trustees what is best for their charity or those they exist to serve. But the law requires that decisions must be reasonable in the circumstances, and they should be evidenced, recorded and explained.

In the case of the National Trust, we have concluded that the charity did not breach charity law, and so there are no grounds for regulatory action. As our case concluding statement makes clear, the National Trust has been able to demonstrate that its work to examine links between its properties and histories of colonialism and slavery was carefully considered, and that it fitted within its charitable objects.

I understand that this conclusion will not satisfy everyone. But I hope it is reassuring to those who raised concerns about the charity’s report, who said it made them feel uncomfortable, and concerned that the charity had lost its way, that the Commission has examined the Trust’s actions very closely.

Where a charity’s actions could pose a risk to public trust and confidence and raise questions about the charity’s focus on its core purpose, it is right that the Charity Commission takes concerns seriously and looks into them. We examine all concerns about charities fairly and treat with respect all those who raise them. But we do so impartially, and robustly, with no pre-judgments as to what we will find. And when we find no grounds for regulatory action, no wrongdoing or governance failure, we will say so. Where we find cause for concern, we will take steps to remedy the problem, including by making use of our legal powers. Following these principles is always important for us as a regulator operating in a democratic and pluralistic society that values free speech. It is even more important in times such as those we are living through, in which divisions seem deeper than in living memory.

But just as we as regulator must be able to show that no complaint about a charity is dismissed on the grounds of the world view that motivates it, so charities must be able to show that they are driven, not by the background, world view or political inclinations and interests of their leaders, but by their mission and purpose, and by the needs of the people or causes they serve. They should be thoughtful about the impact of their actions on their supporters and the public more widely and consider any likely concerns or controversy before they act. And they should remain alive to these risks on an ongoing basis.

The National Trust was able to evidence to us that it had done this. As our statement sets out, the charity had made the effort to think through the issues, considering in advance with the help of a panel of Members how its supporters might feel about a particular course of action, and properly documenting the trustees’ decision-making over the course of several Board meetings. The charity nonetheless found itself in the middle of a storm. It has responded by making a concerted effort to listen to and engage with its critics. And it has reassured us that it will learn from its recent experience, and will remain mindful of the opposing views and diverse opinions within its membership and wider society.  Charities need to be constantly alert to the impact their actions may have on the people on whose support they rely – their beneficiaries, supporters, volunteers, members, donors – and be aware of the wide range of views and sensibilities that exist within the public on whose support all charities ultimately rely.

Beyond this, and beyond the case of the National Trust, there is the matter of campaigning. Charities are allowed to campaign and to take controversial positions in support of their purpose, and our guidance explains the limits set down by law on political activity and campaigning by charities. These have not changed. Charities have a proud record of engaging in public debate from a variety of perspectives, giving a voice to their beneficiaries and highlighting their cause and, in doing so, ultimately changing society. Not all charities represent causes that are universally supported, but all charities must be independent. They must ensure that any involvement with political parties is balanced, and they must not give support or funding to a political party or politicians.

The case of the National Trust is a reminder that people care deeply about charities and what they do, and that in the 21st Century their actions face close scrutiny, rightly. If your charity’s activity generates concern and upset, you will need to be ready to explain your reasons to your members and supporters, the public, the media, or politicians, and you may very well hear from the Commission. But as long as you can show that you were at all times driven by your charity’s purpose, and the interests of those it was set up to serve, that you have followed our guidance, and have given careful consideration to the reputational impact on your charity, the Commission will not take regulatory action.

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  1. Comment by George Howard posted on

    Did the panel of members approached by the NT nor the NT Management not realise that they risked upsetting some members (particularly, for instance re Churchill) and that they could lose them ?
    One of the primary functions of the NT is to attract membership and so create sufficient funds to accomplish their charitable aims.
    I wonder how many subscriptions they have lost !

    • Replies to George Howard>

      Comment by Glenda Hicks posted on

      I joined the National Trust many, many years ago because I supported the preservation of our historic buildings for all to see and enjoy, certainly not because I wanted to pass judgement on those who built or previously owned the buildings. I cancelled my N.T. membership as soon as I heard of "woke" the actions of the Trustees.

  2. Comment by Arthur Jones posted on

    In my view, the Chief Executive of the Charity Commission should not have published this blog post. Although no particular sentence in it is factually incorrect, its overall tone and effect - whether intended or not - is chilling.

    The overall argument seems to be that - despite the National Trust having been cleared of wrongdoing - charities should be more cautious when engaging on issues which people "have opposing views and diverse opinions".

    Charity leaders are told to be driven "not by the background, world view or political inclinations". Yet of course the irony is that this investigation into the National Trust was driven entirely by those motivations.

    So the subtext is clear - the regulator wants to deter activities like the National Trust's, even though what it did was not illegal, because the government was politically inclined against it.

    This is disturbing in a free society.

  3. Comment by Gordon Coggon posted on

    Why does the charity supporting the BNTVA allow its trustees to block comments given by some of its members when the comments are only critisising the way that certain trustees are abusing their position on the board?( Blocking certain members because of personal dislikes is not a way to keep members)

  4. Comment by Julie posted on

    Specifically, in what ways did the National Trust show that its recent flights into historical perspectives are driven by an overarching desire for what is best for the charity? This blog is very sketchy, as is the statement by the Charity Commission. It is people's hard earned money which drives charities - let's not forget that. As such, when a charity generates such ill will, it should be incumbent upon the Charity Commission to make publicly available exactly why that charity has been exonerated with clear references to how a decision has been reached. Personally, I find this blog and accompanying statement, simply not good enough. I suspect many others will feel the same.

  5. Comment by Lind posted on

    How come charities are not regulated in the High salaries that are paid to management which takes the monies away from who the charity is meant to help in first place. A lot of military drop in centres have been closed recently

  6. Comment by Deborah Andrews posted on

    It is very commendable when the Commission acts in a fair and impartial way to ensure that charities are pursuing their charitable aims. I only wish they had been as conscientious in the case of Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare, as my complaints about them were not acted upon.

    Raystede was set up in the 1950s by Miss M Raymonde-Hawkins MBE who, describing herself as a 'non meat-eater', wrote “My own view, and that of every decent minded person, is that no animal should be caused to suffer at all for any reason.” According to long-term volunteers who worked there in her lifetime, she fiercely disapproved if anyone came to work with a meat sandwich or leather handbag. However, ten years after her death in 1998, the Raystede trustees opened a cafe which sells meat, dairy and fish. Despite the fact that vegan alternatives are now widely available, they have ignored thousands of complaints which point out that by serving animal products they are acting in contravention of their own governing documents- ie causing unnecessary suffering instead of preventing it.

    Articles of Association, Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare (1964)
    1. Objects:
    1.1 The objects of the charity are
    (1) To prevent and relieve cruelty to animals and to protect them from unnecessary suffering and to promote and encourage a knowledge and love of animals and of their proper care and treatment.

    All complaints, letters and emails on this subject have been completely ignored by the charity, including an online petition which has been running since 2016. Then in 2019 the charity applied to the Commission for permission to change their charitable objects so that they would no longer be operating in contravention of them. The charity's new objects are:

    Objects of the Company are for the benefit of the public:
    1.1 to advance education in animal welfare and its best practice through the promotion of the same to the general public; and
    1.2 to provide humane treatment and care to animals and to ensure that they do not suffer by:
    1.2.2 arranging appropriate sanctuary and re-homing facilities for animals in need; and/or
    1.2.3 the provision of veterinary care and by the provision, maintenance and management of homes of rest, boarding establishments and hospitals for animals and/or by the provision of suitable work under the supervision of the charity, or by arranging for their painless destruction.

    Thus, with the charity commission's permission, they have narrowed their raison d'être to that of a simple pet rescue. A stark contrast to Miss Raymonde-Hawkins' mission which was to make “the world a better place for all life to experience, from the lowliest creature crawling to the most magnificent of dignified jungle life.” Sensible Pets and Silly People [1990], page 180

    Should not a charity be required to follow its charitable objects? And if they don't, shouldn't they be reprimanded by the Commission? Does the Commission really accept Raystede's claim that the reason they serve animal products in the cafe is to make money to help the two thousand animals a year they rescue? (NB the products they serve cost the lives of at least ten thousand animals per year when the cafe has unrestricted opening hours. [verified estimate from their own visitor numbers] )

    What should a concerned member of the public do if they have raised a legitimate complaint and it has been ignored by both the charity and the Commission?

    • Replies to Deborah Andrews>

      Comment by Gavin posted on

      Hi Deborah, thank you for your comments. I have referred your comments to the appropriate department for consideration. Regards, Gavin.

      • Replies to Gavin>

        Comment by Deborah Andrews posted on

  7. Comment by Bob Marshall posted on

    Barak Obama was addressing a group of American students in 2019 at a Chicago university, when he said "...This idea of purity and never compromise and you're always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. That's enough", he said.

    We certainly won't be renewing our membership with the National Trust , who seem to have been given the 'all clear' to continue with their woke agenda!

    • Replies to Bob Marshall>

      Comment by Nick Goh posted on

      Well, the fact is that you and other complainants have a problem with the truth - which is that significant amounts of money from the slave trade went into some of the National Trusts properties. Why is the truth so hard for you to handle? The NT has handled this question pretty sensitively, even making it child friendly. How would you handle the issue of all that slavery money if asked?

      • Replies to Nick Goh>

        Comment by Robert Marshall posted on

        Hmmmmm! Someone who has clearly not understood my Barak Obama (woke) quote, nor read and understood the Charities Commission report?
        Many people of colour have benefited greatly from so called "slavery money". Colston School, Oxford University etc - as Barak Obama said "That's enough".
        Oh, and by the way, as an Anglo Indian teenager who came to the UK in the 1960's, think of the worst racial slur, and I have been called it, both in India and the UK - by sad INDIVIDUALS. The UK is one of the most tolerant and generous nations on earth. So, "That's enough" of woke!

    • Replies to Bob Marshall>

      Comment by Psoido posted on

      You use a “quote” of President Obama who has a reputation with many people to make you point.
      You either are parroting somebody else’s distortion and have not checked the source or you know that Obama did not say that and are deliberately misquoting him.

  8. Comment by Guy Perry posted on

    Well said, Robert!

  9. Comment by Les Rose posted on

    As well as fulfilling its charitable purpose, the law also requires a charity to operate for public benefit. The two are not the same. I have not seen much evidence of the Commission taking complaints seriously when charities fail the latter test.

  10. Comment by Colin Cowan posted on

    The Charity Commission conclusion seems to be complimentary about how the NT managed the production of the historic colonialism and slavery report and the responses to it. The role of caring for historic properties and estates involves interpretation of these places and the artefacts they contain. As a member who only recently read the report I thought the NT was finding its way, not losing it.