In defence of campaigning charities

Last week CPRE’s head of planning, Matt Thomson, wrote an excellent blog for the Conservative Home website. This rebutted an anti-CPRE polemic by a researcher for the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Matt’s blog is well worth reading, but I was particularly struck by the comments from readers. As usual with Conservative Home articles on planning and development, most were supportive of CPRE’s perspective, but a significant minority questioned CPRE’s status as a charity.
‘What is CPREs mandate? Who funds them? Do they have charitable status? How much are their directors paid? Are they just a pressure group?… What is “charitable” about being a pressure group?… Pressure and lobbying groups should not be charities.’ And so on.
Such questioning of charities, particularly charities that criticise the Government, is becoming more and more common. Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, for instance, carried a piece by the great Christopher Hope, headlined ‘Half of Gordon Brown’s “spads” work for charities lobbying Coalition, as Tories condemn “revolving door”’. The article quotes a number of Conservative MPs complaining about the ‘left-wing bias’ of charities and campaigning groups.
Charities should be scrutinised at least as much as any other sort of organisation. As a donor, I want to know that any charity I support is going to use my money well. That does not mean that I think it should pay low salaries to its staff, under-invest in fundraising, and keep out of politics – but that appears to be what an increasing number of politicians and journalists believe.
On senior salaries and fundraising costs, charities are fairly open. Their accounts are freely available on the Charity Commission website. And CPRE – the Campaign to Protect Rural England – is very open about the fact that we campaign.
Of course, we do not exist to campaign. Our charitable objects state that we exist ‘to promote and encourage for the benefit of the nation the improvement and protection of the English countryside and its towns and villages and the better development of the rural environment’. So, we are not a pressure group promoting our members’ interests or the interests of people living in rural England. We are a public interest charity.
But most of the ways in which we seek to improve and protect the English countryside involve campaigning (in its broadest sense) as they have since our foundation in 1926. We do not own land; we seek to influence – in the public interest – how land is used. If we did not campaign, we would not be able to fulfil our charitable mission.
Our campaigns are scrupulously non-party political. Think-tanks – which are also charities, and probably have a greater impact on public policy than most campaign groups – often have a fairly clear ideological bias, but CPRE jealously guards its political neutrality. That does not mean that we do not engage in political discussion, or that our staff and volunteers do not have political views. I was active in the Labour Party as recently as fifteen years ago. One of my trustees is a Conservative cabinet member on his local authority. But when we speak for CPRE, we aim to speak for the countryside, not for any particular party.
I understand why some people get irritated with charities and their leaders. We ought to be able to respond robustly to fair criticism and questioning, and not give the impression that we think that charities are somehow above the fray (except when we want to criticise those in power).
But there is something deeply illiberal about some of the current sniping at charities, the knee-jerk referrals to the Charity Commission every time a charity says something a politician disagrees with (both the IPPR and Policy Exchange have been accused in recent weeks, and the Commission probably has a special unit to deal with complaints about the RSPCA).
Charities fulfil their mission in all sorts of ways. Campaigning is one of them. CPRE is not about to become the Polite Request to Protect Rural England (if you don’t mind too much).

3 Responses to “In defence of campaigning charities”

  1. 1 Cathy August 18, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Why aren’t there ‘twitter’ and ‘facebook’, etc. buttons on these posts? They should all be widely diseminated. I see the AGM agenda has a slot on using social media. Surely here’s a place to start. Cathy Nicholls CPRE Somerset and tweeter @CPREsomerset

    • 2 Rhiannon Ormerod August 19, 2014 at 9:10 am

      Hi Cathy, there are sharing buttons at the bottom of the blog posts but we could look at making these more prominent. We’re keen to ensure that blogs are easy to share. Thanks, Rhiannon (Digital Communications Manager, CPRE)

  2. 3 nick thompson August 20, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Excellent blog Shaun, I like many people who support CPRE am a “political animal”, who believes that our democratic system is the main vehicle for calling to account Government action. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be other routes to challenge the Government. I don’t broadcast my party affiliation in CPRE and there are times when I despair with some of the things said by fellow CPRE members, but I still hang on in as CPRE like any charity is a crucial vehicle for the ordinary man or woman to campaign for single issues.
    Nick Thompson NW CPRE

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