Charities and Political Advocacy

by Alan Knowsley - Rainey Collins Lawyers

To be registered as a charity an organisation must be charitable. That seems self-evident but what is charitable is not so clear.

In a significant decision for the charitable sector, the Supreme Court allowed Greenpeace’s appeal against the Court of Appeal’s decision that a political purpose cannot be a charitable purpose.

The Supreme Court found that, instead of political advocacy being excluded outright, assessing whether advocacy or promotion of a cause or law reform is for the ‘public benefit’ depends on:
  • The end that is advocated;
  • The means promoted to achieve that end; and
  • The manner in which the cause is promoted.

The Supreme Court noted that where a charity promotes an abstract idea such as “peace” or “nuclear disarmament”, the focus must be on how this idea is to be furthered. This means considering the context of public participation in processes and human rights values, rather than whether the idea itself has broad public support.

The Supreme Court also noted that charities law should be responsive to the changing circumstances of society, not fixed rigidly in the past.

So what does this mean for your charity?

While the case is rightly regarded as a victory for Greenpeace, charities still need to take care if they engage in advocacy work.

The Supreme Court found that it will be difficult to show that promoting an idea is itself charitable. Therefore, if your organisation focuses on advocacy, you should aim to demonstrate to Charities Services that the end you are promoting, or the means you are using to promote your end, are charitable. The Supreme Court has confirmed that in order to do this you should compare your ends and means with purposes that have already been recognised as ‘charitable’. For example, if your organisation aims to relieve the poverty of disadvantaged women by promoting their voice in society, this may be regarded as charitable.

Organisations that are already registered charities also need to continue to take care not to jeopardise their current charitable status if they engage in political advocacy. It may be sensible for the organisation to adopt policies around the type of advocacy activities it will and will not engage in. Charities should be careful before they advocate on matters that might be considered ‘private’ benefits – for example, advocating pay rises for the members of a particular profession. Charities should also take care before they publicly endorse a particular Member of Parliament (in their newsletter, for example).

For more information on this topic, please contact the Rainey Collins office (04 4736850) or the article author - Alan Knowsley.

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