Trustee survey: Confidence in reforming role is high but trustees need support.

Last year the Charity Reform Group launched its inaugural report, Speak up, we need you!, which found a strong appetite among leaders from other sectors to hear more from charity CEOs in public discourse. That same research suggested that one of the barriers is a lack of clarity, and perhaps confidence, among charity trustees as to what charity CEOs can – or should – legitimately speak about, and how.

To test this further, we collaborated with Governance and Leadership (G&L) magazine to survey 165 charity trustees on their attitudes to and understanding of speaking out, campaigning, charity regulation, and more. The results reveal a strong appetite to speak up, but a lack confidence in navigating the current environment. 

  • Respondents see campaigning as a vital part of charities’ work (82%) and are very confident that they can deploy a range of tactics in pursuit of change.  
  • Over 80% agree campaigning legitimately includes activity such as; changing attitudes, sharing evidence, lobbying, advocating on behalf of people affected, supporting people affected to speak up or be involved in campaigns, debating policy issues, and changing legislation.  
  • However, many are concerned that the risks could outweigh the benefits in the face of attacks from politicians (74%), attacks from the media (84%), or loss of support from donors (80%).  
  • The situation is further complicated by confusion around regulation, with only 16% of respondents feeling Charity Commission guidance on campaigning is very clear.  

Heads above the parapet 

This research was done in collaboration with Governance and Leadership magazine and was the lead story in their November 2023 edition. Read the analysis from SMK’s Chloe Hardy and G&L’s editor Tania Mason.

Free trustee event – 21 Nov

We’ll explore the results of the survey and how trustees can best support their organisations to speak out in a free, online seminar for trustees on Tuesday 21 November, 3.30-5pm.

What trustees are saying

“Our organisation has a proud history, dating back centuries, of campaigning for reforms that at the time were very contentious (eg anti-slavery). There are issues of a similar calibre that face us today, but I feel our board of trustees and charity leadership are enfeebled by the current vociferous political climate on the culture wars, when we should be speaking out on what we believe to be right.” 

“…while responding to current needs is an important part of our work, we will never eliminate or reduce that need unless we do more to influence government and funders, and to some extent public awareness and attitudes.”  

“It is possible (and important) that some charities propose alternative analyses of the causes, impacts, and realities of social phenomena – and the ways in which policy is made, implemented and experienced. Charities emerged as critiques of government policy and practice – part of the function, role and purpose of non-governmental organisations is precisely to demonstrate how the state can improve and develop services and attention to citizens and communities.” 

What we say 

Sue Tibballs, SMK CEO says: 

“Charities are a vital part of the UK’s democratic life. They contribute to public debate, hold governments to account, and bring their expertise and the voices of those they work with to policymaking. We want to see charities protect their space to campaign by inhabiting it with confidence; regulators and funders ensure the support to navigate legal and regulatory challenges is available; and politicians model good democratic behaviour by valuing robust debate and standing up for charities right to speak out.” 

What the Charity Reform Group say 

Mark Russell, CEO of the Children’s Society says: 

“Society is facing so many complex and intertwined challenges, and our sector is a vital pillar – full of expertise, deep connections, and a passion for reform. This survey shows that charities have thoughtful trustees who want to deliver the best impact for the people and communities they work with. That so many are prevented from doing so because of ambiguity around guidelines, or a fear of the repercussions is intolerable.” 

Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter says:  

“Any CEO, regardless of sector, has to navigate how they express professional and personal views. The more it is discussed openly with trustees, even set down in organisational policy, the easier that navigation becomes. More than that, it can create a sense of calm confidence, even in the face of political hostility, that you are speaking with the support of your board.” 

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