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The Charity Commission’s guidance on political campaigning is proving a weak deterrent

The pre-election warning to charities by the Charity Commission chief executive Andrew Hind, telling them “not to engage in any party political activity or leave the charity open to the perception that they might be”, looks like one of those police clampdowns on cyclists riding on pavements: more request than threat.

It was always going to be difficult for the regulator to monitor comments by 180,000 organisations and hardly a day has passed without at least one charity endorsing or criticising a particular party.

But for sheer effrontery, the comments of Atlantic Bridge this week take some beating.

The charity is already under investigation for links to the Conservative Party, but this didn’t prevent Amanda Bowman, chief executive of its American arm, saying that David Cameron would be “much more amenable to shared US-UK foreign interests than Gordon Brown” and better for the special relationship.

Bowman then emailed Third Sector a statement, perhaps because she wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face talking directly to us, saying her comments were ìnot intended as an endorsement of David Cameron, but rather as speculation that this relationship will hopefully be revitalised if the Tories win the general electionî.

This is a charity founded by shadow defence charity Liam Fox, who remains a trustee, and whose advisory council includes seven Tory MPs and a Tory peer. Margaret Thatcher is an honorary patron.

Bowman could hardly have nailed the charity’s political colours to the mast more clearly if she had stuck two fingers up to Gordon Brown while wearing a blue rosette and singing Land of Hope and Glory.

The commission won’t say how many complaints it has received about party politics. It claims the information is too hard to collate. All Atlantic Bridge can expect is advice and guidance after the election is over. The commission’s wrath looks a poor deterrent to political point scoring.

  • Guy Smith

    No one can argue with the value of volunteers – every charity should make the most of people willing to donate their valuable time.
    But I feel that this article should be taken with a pinch of salt for oversimplifying the issue.
    You don’t just need bodies, you need skills – that volunteers won’t necessarily have – and the whole point of investing your funds in paid employees is that they necessarily bring a much greater return on investment than volunteers – since even volunteers need someone to manage and direct their efforts.

    • Guy, you are making a common mistake I fear. You are assuming that we’d just take anyone off the street and get them to be a volunteer. Using your words, just bodies.

      No competent, professional Volunteer Manager would do that. You’d make sure the right people with the right skills were selected and deployed into the right roles to make the biggest difference. This is why volunteer investment and value audits generally show a 1:8 ROI on volunteer engagement (including the cost of managing them, which isn’t always done by an employee by the way).

      Why won’t volunteers necessarily have the skills needed? Why are paid staff the only way you can get skills?

      That reasoning is a nonsense. It is insulting to the millions of volunteers who do great work for good causes up and down this country, indeed around the world. It disregards and disrespects the vision, skills and hard work of all those volunteers who founded the very organisation that now employee people to work in our sector.

      Of course I am not advocating that paid staff aren’t needed. If I’d taken that line I’d have said that there are other ways to get things done *other* than by paying for them with cold hard cash.” Paid staff have a key role to play working alongside volunteers as part of a team, at least in those organisations with paid staff – remember, the majority of voluntary sector agencies have no paid staff at all and are entirely volunteer run.

      In fact, if you read my blog post again, you’ll see that I argue that effective deployment of volunteers (done strategically, not as an afterthought) can release money to do other things, to do more, which by implication includes employing people. As I say in the post, “This requires organisations to look at the full mix of resources available, to value them accordingly and to deploy them most effectively in pursuit of the mission.”

      Dismissing volunteers as inherently unskilled as you suggest is demonstrating exactly the problem I am trying to highlight in the way people in the sector seem to think about the resources at their disposal.