New research exploring the volunteering experiences and perspectives of people from the global majority. Find out more
Charities play an important role in advocating for policy change. Elections can be a key opportunity to further your charitable and campaigning goals. As we move towards a general election, your charity may be planning campaign activities to ensure your issues are on the political agenda.
We know many charities are concerned about the potential risks of political campaigning. There are both legal and reputational risks when taking a prominent role in what can be a divisive, politicised debate.
Below we’ve highlighted the key issues in charity and electoral law for you to think about. We want charities to understand and manage the risks associated with campaigning. This guidance will help you feel more confident about campaigning and support you to achieve the maximum impact.
Campaigning generally refers to the ways charities and other organisations can achieve their goals through influencing particular audiences.
The Commission defines political activity as:
… activity by a charity which is aimed at securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad.
Political activity is seen as higher risk for charities than, for example, campaigning to change public attitudes.
Because of this, political campaigning has specific rules that charities must follow.
The Charity Commission has made clear that campaigning is a legitimate activity for charities. This remains the case during elections.
The law states that charities must be independent of party politics. That means they can’t give their support to, or fund, political parties or candidates. Charities should also make sure they’re seen as politically independent by the public.
Trustees should make sure their charity is not used to express the political views of individual trustees or staff members.
The law itself doesn’t change during an election period. But people are more likely to question your charity’s political independence.
You’ll need to consider your political campaigning carefully. You should think about how your issues could be met with opposing views during an election campaign, and what to do if they’re high on the election agenda.
Read the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission’s advice for charities engaging in public debate.
The Charity Commission also has campaigning guidance for charities during an election.
Charities can support and oppose the policies of political parties. You should consider how this might affect perceptions of your charity’s independence.
If a party adopts a policy that aligns with a longstanding policy ask or your charitable purposes, there is unlikely to be any issue with you welcoming that support and calling on other parties to adopt it.
If a party adopts a policy that your charity opposes, you can criticise the policy. The criticism must relate to your charitable purposes and the impact on the people you support.
You should think carefully about the tone of your statement. It’s likely to influence how people perceive your political independence. Make sure any disagreement or criticism of a policy is constructive and based on evidence.
This also applies to highlighting when a party or candidate endorses your asks. It’s fine to point this out. However if you put too much focus on it, it may come across as biased.
If criticism is consistent with your previous public statements, people will be less likely to question your charity’s political independence. You can comment on a new policy area, but again you should consider how this may affect perceptions of your independence, particularly in the lead up to an election.
Charities also need to consider electoral law. Electoral law is overseen by the Electoral Commission. They regulate election campaigning by political parties, and certain types of campaigning carried out by third parties, known as non-party campaigners.
Unlike the Charity Commission, the Electoral Commission doesn’t regulate which campaigning activities you can and can’t carry out. They instead set rules on how much you can spend on certain types of campaigning activities.
Most charities won’t carry out enough regulated activity to meet the threshold for registration as a non-party campaigner. However, charities can register if their planned campaigning activity meets this threshold.
You should consider registering as a non-party campaigner if this is the best way to meet your charitable purpose.
Electoral law says that spending on campaigning activity will be regulated if:
Electoral law includes criteria to decide if campaign spending should be regulated. This is known as the purpose test. Spending will meet the purpose test if:
… it can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the electoral success of one or more political parties or candidates who support or do not support particular policies or another particular category of candidates.
Your campaigning activity will meet the purpose test if it tries to influence the public to vote in a particular way. Even if this is not your intention, activity could still meet the purpose test if it’s perceived to be influencing the way people vote.
Most of the time, activities which comply with charity campaigning law won’t meet the purpose test. But it is possible.
A common campaign approach is to ask parties or candidates to pledge support for a particular policy. According to the Electoral Commission, comparing candidates or parties’ policies is likely to meet the purpose test.
So, if a charity publicly comments on how aligned each party or candidate is with the policy they’re campaigning for, this would likely meet the purpose test. The campaign activity would then be classed as regulated activity if it also met the other criteria.
However, if a charity published this information after an election and outside of the regulated period (see below), this would not be regulated by the Electoral Commission. It would likely also comply with charity law.
The following activities are regulated if they meet the purpose test (see above) and fall within the regulated period (see below):
If your campaign materials are available to everyone this is likely to be considered ‘public’. If you restrict access to closed groups of members or supporters, that is unlikely to be regulated.
See the Electoral Commission’s guidance on the production or publication of campaigning material.
Read the Electoral Commission’s non-party campaigner case studies to understand which activities are likely to be regulated.
The regulated period is the period of time when the Electoral Commission’s campaign spending rules are in place.
The regulated period starts one year before the election date. It’s applied retrospectively. For example, if an election is called for 2 May 2024, the spending rules would apply to regulated activities between 2 May 2023 and 2 May 2024.
The latest date the next general election can be held is 28 January 2025. This means we’re now definitely in the regulated period. Spending limits and other legal limits will apply to any new campaign activity.
When an election is called unexpectedly early, campaign activity which has already been carried out is less likely to meet the purpose test. This is because it’s less clear whether activity was intended to influence the way people vote.
This is harder to argue when there’s an expected election date. Autumn 2024 has regularly been suggested as a likely date for the next general election. This means there’s a good chance certain campaign activity since October 2023 would meet the purpose test.
If you spend £10,000 on regulated activity across the UK you will need to register as a non-party campaigner with the Electoral Commission.
If you spend £20,000 in England, or £10,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you will need to report spending and donations related to your regulated expenditure.
Find out more about reporting requirements for non-party campaigners.
If you know you’re likely to meet the £10,000 UK threshold, you should let the Electoral Commission know you’re planning to register as a non-party campaigner. Don’t wait until you’ve spent enough. You may not spend more than £10,000 on regulated activity until you’re on the register.
Learn more about non-party campaigner requirements and spending thresholds.
Charities often work together on campaigns. If you’re working with others, you’ll need to be aware of the rules on joint campaigning.
The Electoral Commission will consider regulated activity to be joint campaigning if:
There are two ways to report spending under a joint campaign.
If a lead campaigner is nominated they can report all of the spending on behalf of all other joint campaigners, who are then known as minor campaigners.
If no lead campaigner is nominated this is known as an ordinary joint campaign. Each campaigner will need to account for the collective spending of the joint campaign individually.
So, if the campaign carries out £15,000 of regulated activity, each campaigner will have to register as a non-party campaigner, and report £15,000 of activity. This will be reported on top of any other regulated activity they have carried out which was not part of the joint campaign.
Campaigns can move fast during an election. If you’re considering a joint campaign and would like advice, you can contact The Electoral Commission.
The introduction of digital imprints is a new measure that charities should be aware of.
An imprint is the information that campaigners must include on certain materials to provide transparency on:
An imprint has been required for printed campaign materials for a number of years. You can usually find it at the bottom of party or candidate campaign leaflets. The Elections Act 2022 extended this requirement to include digital materials.
For most charities there are limited circumstances when you’ll need to use an imprint. If you’re not registered as a non-party campaigner, imprints are only required for paid for adverts that are classed as political material. This is defined as material that is intended to influence the public, or a section of the public, to vote in a particular way.
If you are registered as a non-party campaigner, you'll need to publish imprints on any election, referendum or recall petition material.
Producing an imprint is easy. You just need to add the following information to campaigning materials.
Unlike most Electoral Commission guidance for non-party campaigners, the rules around digital imprints apply at all times, not just during the regulated period.
You may want to consider including an imprint, even if you’re not sure whether it’s required.
This page was co-produced by:
Get started with digital communications, campaigns and content in the charity sector and find out who can help
Ask our practical support team any question about the setting up or running of your charity or voluntary organisation.
We launched a new campaign in the summer of 2023 to help trustees and charity leaders consider the environmental impact of their charities’ investments
NCVO launches campaign to encourage charities to consider divestment
Take a look at this page first to learn about options your organisation can take to divest from fossil fuels
Step-by-step guidance to help your board consider divestment
Step by step guidance to help your board consider divestment
Learn how charities without fossil fuel investments can support the campaign
Learn how charities without fossil fuel investments can support the campaign
Get regular updates on NCVO's help, support and services