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Yes, political think tanks deserve their charitable status

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This piece was first published in The Times on 12 March 2024. 

Think tanks are critical to our political ecosystem. Their work is valued by parliamentarians and those interested in public policy. Their model of policy development and scrutiny is present in most established democratic nations, where solutions to the toughest challenges are researched, analysed and debated with gusto.

It is because of the important role of think tanks in informing debate and educating the public that many of them hold charitable status in England and Wales. Yet the nature of these charities is too often called into question.

Some argue that think tanks are inherently political organisations and, accordingly, don’t deserve the benefits that charitable status brings. I disagree. Charitable think tanks make an enormously positive contribution to intellectual debate. That is a good thing, whatever intellectual tradition they come from.

Like any charity, think tanks are free to engage in political activity where doing so supports their charitable purposes. Despite this, some have sought to co-opt the Charity Commission into campaigns against think tanks with which they disagree.

I want to be clear that, as long as a think tank is not endorsing political parties or undertaking inappropriate political activity, the commission, as regulator, has no interest in stifling their work and thus will rarely intervene when allegations of political bias are made. This is a key part of the fair, balanced and independent approach of the commission.

We expect their research to be open-minded and their conclusions not to be predetermined. But we are unlikely to consider that a progressive think tank is in breach of charity law by the fact that it may favour left-of-centre solutions, and likewise with others elsewhere on the political spectrum.

Similarly, it is not a regulatory matter if charity think tank staff join any future government, or if staff leave government to join a charity think tank. Ex-politicians and officials have a lot to offer the voluntary sector (think of David Miliband at the International Rescue Committee), just as many former charity employees have made strong contributions to politics (think of the current charities minister Stuart Andrew, formerly of the British Heart Foundation).

I hope charity think tanks can continue to carry out the work they do unhindered by unfounded complaints made to the commission about the alleged non-charitable nature of their work — and continue to be the valuable part of our democracy they are trusted to be.

This article was published on the same day as an event held at the Institute for Government, titled: ‘General Election: How can think tanks shape policy and political debate?’ You can watch or listen to the discussion.

The event was attended by Orlando Fraser and three think tank leaders, and chaired by former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, who described the Times article above asa really significant step in terms of helping everybody understand where we are and giving that permission to do the appropriate things that think tanks need to do in the run up to an election.”

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  1. Comment by Edward Hodgson posted on

    Your comment is blatantly political and , to be honest, disgraceful.
    Is this why so many ‘charities’ are left wing mouthpieces?
    Are there any other‘charities’ who espouse opposing political views?
    I would wager not. But, l would love to hear from you with the Charities Commission’s explanation and its own views. However, the question of bias is overwhelming.
    Nevertheless I look forward to hearing from you.

    Yours sincerely
    E. Hodgson

    • Replies to Edward Hodgson>

      Comment by Geoff Chapman posted on

      Totally agree Edward. This political statement by Mr Fraser is a disgrace. His claim regards "Stifling" there work is quite frankly surprising to say the least! These unelected pressure groups are not compatible with Charitable status and his statement has to be challenged. There funding isnt transparent in any form. I would like to see Charitable status removed from all Think Tanks.

  2. Comment by Angela Guest posted on

  3. Comment by Angela Guest posted on

  4. Comment by Paul Settles posted on

    All well and good to robustly defend charity think tanks. However, we should have full transparency about funding of such organisations.

    If a think tank is pushing strongly for higher union membership should we not know if the think tank is funded by unions?

    Similarly if a think tank is pushing hard against action to counter the climate and ecological crises should we not know if said think tank is funded by fossil fuel/climate change denying interests?

    Without such information we are left to second guess if the research really if open minded, as their charitable status requires.

    • Replies to Paul Settles>

      Comment by PETER FORREST posted on

      Absolutely agreed with this comment. If think tanks are to be considered as charities they must have complete transparency about their funding.

  5. Comment by Geoff Chapman posted on

    Paul, your comments about Climate change and Ecological Crises denial within a number of " Think Tanks" is well made. For me the key is that all funding for these overtly political organisations be made totally transparent
    to be considered for Charitable status, clearly this isn't the case at the moment. In my opinion, Mr Fraser's comment regarding "Unfounded Complaints " is concerning .

    • Replies to Geoff Chapman>

      Comment by alan wightman posted on

      I share your concerns..."Think tanks be unhindered by unfounded complaints...non-charitable work...valuable part of our democracy."
      Try making a complaint to the `straight-jacket´ Charity Commission!
      In many cases charities are politically inclined as evidenced by e.g. wealthiest multi-national companies in the world... Donors/Partners funding offices in the political centre of London besides the very `generous´ salaries for the hierarchy. To which comments of criticism are blocked deriding the claim that "they are a valuable part of our democracy". They describe themselves as `humble and transparent´ but 85% of funding disclosed graded as `B´. Should you be interested then...

  6. Comment by Jon posted on


    Your post says " as long as a think tank is not endorsing political parties or undertaking inappropriate political activity, the commission, as regulator, has no interest in stifling their work"

    This CC post

    says "But the law requires that decisions must be reasonable in the circumstances, and they should be evidenced, recorded and explained."

    So when a think tank with charitable status does not evidence the basis for their decisions/publicity

    And the facts do not support their decision/publicity

    What would you do as the regulatory body?

    For instance - Would you require the think tank to correct their factually incorrect statement?

  7. Comment by Edward Hodgson posted on

    I was told before contacting you it would be a waste of time.

    And they were right. How HnH can keep its status is beyond me.
    Hopefully I’m going to take it to my MP because something really stinks here.
    You’re no better than a biased quango

  8. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    "Blatantly political and disgraceful" which nobody can deny except of course the author. However, method in the madness with a salary of 62.000pounds p.a. for a two & a half day week. When his contract terminates next year he could become a `Director´of a Think Tank and in some cases that salary will be tripled.

  9. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    Please excuse any typing errors but in great haste lest I can´t complete in your 30 minute complaint restriction which gave my carer a good laugh!

    I´m considering applying for Free Legal Aid as await possible summons to court for persisting with these comments. Thus, "Once more into the breach..... ". (King Henry V ´s victory against all the odds except a KC!)

    Think Tanks stress distance to politics to make their proximity to academia & their academic independence more credible.

  10. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    Look at your own title, Mr. Fraser... "Yes. political Think tanks". The charities Act requires the `Commission to be operationally independent´.
    `the question of bias is overwhelming´ but awaits your reply as likewise.

    Look at the claim..."As Britain´s leading public services Think Tank" but source states they `lean to the right´ and registered as a private company.
    `Think Tanks see their role as shaping political strategy and policy but not in any charitable form or matter but as political influencers to which Directors are financially are well-rewarded financially and other ways.
    Why are there an ever-increasing number of Think Tanks & as `Chaired´by Mr. Fraser at a conference with three Think Tank leaders & ex. Cabinet Secretary ..."permission for Think Tanks to do appropriate things they need to do in the run up to the election." There will be a lot from Whitehall
    looking for jobs after the election and no doubt some looking for office space to advertise yet another "Charitable" Think Tank.
    Interpret `public service´ as `self-service´ and ignore `charitable´.

  11. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    Refer to your own `Comment & Moderation Policy´. which states ...
    "We want to hear from you" but not a single critical comment on my part has been published but in contrast a protracted propagandist-style article by the Chair and accompanied with an overtly-sized photograph of himself.
    Well affordable of course with salary of 62.0000 pounds p.a. for two & a half days a week. Yes, proof that charity begins at home Orlando? KC.
    Thank you, Alan, KC (King´s Citizen).

    • Replies to alan wightman>

      Comment by leanne posted on

      Hi Alan. All comments made on the blog have to be manually approved before they appear. Unfortunately your posts had not yet been picked up at the end of last week and the blog is not monitored over the weekend.

      • Replies to leanne>

        Comment by alan wightman posted on

        Thank you for your service Leanne.

  12. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    Mr. Fraser´s article caused reference to `The trade Descriptions Act´ by which consumers are protected from misleading services by his nigh fanatical defence, (with photo) of these Think Tanks meriting charitable status. The term "charitable" most commonly understood as giving money, help and food to those in need. Educating the public by self-style claim as "experts"? One such "expert" was Leader at such a Think Tank but her Premiership lasted only 49 days but enough to near bankruptcy.

    Look at their funding via mostly corporate sources and some individuals.
    There are 156 Think Tanks of which 121 located in London. They must need a lot of education whilst in the North-East our volunteers run Food Banks.
    Short of work, but not education viz. Durham University & Cathedral which is one of the few not to charge an entry fee. That´s Education!

    Compare these "Charitable" Think Tanks with in some cases their offices located in luxurious Mayfair, flanked by Chelsea &Kensington but money talks as they are excellently situated in Westminster and Parliament but surely not deserving of tax-deductibles and other "benefits". Maintain them if you must, but "Esto Quad Es". Now that would be some policy!
    No! Orlando! Not charitable status for any reason... Public education!

  13. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    `Think Tanks should renounce "charitable" to be "bold" and free
    Make them "independent" at least in part, preferably be
    To surge England´s salvation by their solutions and "brave" policies.
    Preserve their offices in Westminster, Marylebone and Chelsea,
    Endowed by invited "experts" at conferences as academic `High Society.
    The selfless volunteers carrying boxes at Food Banks emergency,
    `Nil Desperandum´ on Tyne, Wear & Tees, as empowered for self-destiny.

    Saint Paul: Faith, Hope & Charity, but the greatest of all is Charity.

  14. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    Refer to the Commission Annual Report 2022-23. Funded by Government,
    (Taxpayers´) by 32 million pounds p.a. with secure work-force of 500+ staff. Includes remuneration in stark contrast to `leading´ Think tanks.
    Authorised to "promote charitable purposes" and not be "hindered" by "unfounded" critics. Begs the question what does the Chair know about their funding as Private Registered Companies. Disclose their salaries as per commendable Commission Report? "he who pays the Piper calls the Tune. Not for nothing are they "very impactive in our society... disseminate their work by attempt to influence Government". Yes, Chair!

  15. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    The concern is the Chair´s defence as meriting "Charitable Status". Why such an outlandish `marketing´ when at Companies House registered numbers as Private Companies + Charity. Best of both worlds for tax-deductible wealthy donors. Their `Filings & Èxemptions´, They could improve their own "education" by reference to the Commission´s Annual Report of 2022-23 so excellently presented by CEO to include transparent salaries, pensions & bonuses. Format should be mandatory for Political, "Charitable" Think Tanks, with approval of the Board & Trustees.
    Why this `Times´ reference article when beneficiary of hard*working staff?
    let´s hope the "skint, little people" didn´t pay for his extra-large photo?

  16. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    Hope springs eternal...on 4th. July, Independence Day, USA and Britain!
    Controversy over the Government to appoint favoured candidates as charities believe the selection process for `Chair´ has been `marked´by political interference. Let´s hope the next Government responds as the appointment system needs reform MPs told i.e. Elected by parliament and not Selected by government. Ex. Political Think Tank need not apply.
    Think Tanks will be spoilt for choice as the redundant MPs seek salaries as political refugees. Now we understand this fervour for "charitable status"!
    Replacements here, replacements there like Charity Commission `Chair´!
    Pity that the CEO is leaving in July, with head held high, 5 dedicated years.

  17. Comment by alan wightman posted on

    We are advised to always be "suspicious" of independent "experts" and
    "There´s non so blind as those who will not see"
    Particularly the `Chair´ of Commission Charity.
    My unpublished posts , including complimentary to employees,
    `Manually approved´ so wait and see if comments fail `democracy´.

    This indicates the Commission is unwilling to apply due diligence to avoid unpleasant facts and preferring to ignore the debased claim that Think Tanks deserve `Charitable status´. They collaborate with Govt. officials, politicians & stakeholders and dependent on donors to influence control.