Wednesday, 24 February 2010

When Charity and Politics Collide

Christine Pratt thrust herself into the limelight on Sunday afternoon and in the process all but destroyed her charity, brought the confidentiality of help lines into question and raised questions about the role of charities in political debate.

Whatever one makes of her motivation to speak out, I think that there are a couple of interesting lessons for third sector leaders.

ACEVO has for many years campaigned for greater clarity and more flexibility in the rules about charity involvement in public policy. The sector’s campaigning role has come into question again in recent weeks as a result Oliver Letwin’s recent comments at the NCVO campaigning conference and extra guidance issued by the Charity Commission ahead of the general election. I hope that sector leaders are not any more reluctant to become involved in the political process as a result of the backlash against Pratt. They shouldn’t because Pratt did a great deal wrong.

The website of the National Bullying Helpline contains quotes of endorsement from David Cameron and other prominent Tories. Her board was comprised of other local Tory activists and the office was two doors away from the local branch of the Conservative party. I don’t for a second believe that her actions were part of a coordinated Tory plot, but for anyone like me who spent two minutes on Monday morning checking out the NBH website alarm bells were ringing.

A huge number of charities involve politicians in trying to promote their work and help to influence the development of policy. This is absolutely appropriate. But that involvement must not be partisan, and in this world appearance is as important as reality. It was very foolish for the charity not to seek and demonstrate cross party support for its work (it’s hardly a controversial topic after all). Whether or not the charity had inappropriate party political links its reputation and credibility are now destroyed.

The second lesson concerns her decision to put political activity ahead of the confidentiality and interests of her clients. The organisation’s objectives as displayed on the charity commission website are “the preservation and protection of good health of those affected by bulling in the workplace and other environments.”

Political campaigning is only allowed and indeed only appropriate when it helps to further the objectives of the charity and is in the interests of its beneficiaries. In her case Pratt has directly sacrificed the interests of her beneficiaries to give herself a platform. That is the cardinal sin of a third sector leader. I wrote a few weeks ago about how our first principle must always be the interests of our beneficiaries.

Sector leaders shouldn’t be afraid to become involved in political debate. They just need to avoid the mistakes of appearing partisan and ignoring their beneficiaries. Neither should be hard.


  1. Pratt should have heeded the lessons learnt from people making inappropriate public comments about the Shaw Trust case should she not?

  2. Oh Robin you wouldn't be saying such things if that pesky umbrella lot you work for gave you the boot and ACEVO came running to your defence as we do for our members. Hang on, you are a member aren't you?

    Fab, sorry, Seb is totally right here. It's instructive that with all the media attention this generated there was no real focus about the nature of charitable political activity per se. It was blatantly clear to all that this was a case of shocking judgement and appalling leadership by one person. Something that is thankfully not widespread within the sector, thanks in part to organisations like ACEVO (and BUBB of course).

  3. Very glad to see today that the Charity Commission has launched a Statutory Inquiry into the NBH as a result of Pratt's actions.

  4. I didn't say that Pratt was right - and defending your members is fine (but what if Pratt had been Acevo member?). The Shaw Trust problem was taking a position via blog when full facts were not publicly known.