Election fever is in the air – and it’s catching! The enquiry line of SCVO’s information service has had quite a few tricky issues to deal with over the last few weeks.

Lately charities have been contacting us with some interesting questions around the election, which has made me think of the fundamental importance of good governance – particularly when it comes to charities and politics.

SCVO is always keen to support charity involvement in the world of politics. For many charities being political is essential to achieving their charitable objectives and meeting the needs of their beneficiaries. Charities also play a vital role in the development of policy, by advocating on the behalf of people whose views may otherwise be marginalised.

One query was from a community centre that was organising a hustings event to provide local residents with an opportunity to hear the views of candidates standing for the general election. The organisers had invited all of the mainstream parties onto the panel, but another party (that some may describe as ‘fringe’) had insisted they should also have a place. The party in question held what many in the community felt to be incendiary views and the trustees of the community centre were concerned that the candidate’s attendance at the event could result in conflict that potentially could get out of hand. They rang the SCVO information service, concerned that if they refused the candidate’s request they could be reported to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

If you are organising hustings, the general rule is to invite all the candidates.

The Electoral Commission guidance sets out points to consider and OSCR has published some useful advice for charities on political campaigning. While charities may choose to engage in political debate, trustees must make sure that this activity is in pursuit of their charitable purposes. They should remember their duty to always act in the best interests of their charity, avoid party politics, and consider any potential reputational impact to their organisation.

If you are organising hustings, the general rule is to invite all the candidates

In this particular case, the trustees did the right thing and sought advice before making any decisions. They made sure they were acting in their charity’s best interests, and within their charitable objectives. In the end, they invited all of the candidates standing for election in the constituency, including the fringe candidate. They ensured that they could show they were fair and transparent in organising the event, and that the candidates on the panel represented a reasonable variety of views from different parts of the political spectrum. On the night they made sure to inform the audience of any candidates standing who were not able to attend.

Despite initial fears, the event passed without incident. There were no complaints to OSCR from any of the candidates, and the trustees clearly demonstrated that the debate they had organised showed no bias towards or against any political party.

It’s important that charities should not shrink from engaging in debate and ensuring the voices of their beneficiaries and clients are heard. Charity trustees can do this by remembering the principles of good governance, and ensuring they:

  1. Understand their role as a trustee, that they are responsible for the management and control of their charity, and act with integrity
  2. Ensure their charity does what it was set up to do – remember your charitable objectives!
  3. Act openly, and ensure any decisions made are transparent and accountable.