Tim Harrison-Byrne & Ben Roberts
Earlier this week, the RSPB twitter/X account tagged Rishi Sunak and two of his ministers in a post about their involvement in plans to roll back environmental regulations in favour of supporting housing developments. Shared within the post were numerous references to earlier pledges to maintain protections of our waterways, all highlighted as broken promises. The post, since removed and apologised for, has been controversial for the perceived directness of its critique: that these ministers are “liars”.
It can be difficult within the social media sphere to read the overall temperature of discussions like this. Even when we ignore extreme hot takes from pundits, there are many normal members of the public keen to join in the conversation. But, for each person lauding the resolve of a charity speaking up to power comes another post admonishing the organisation for getting too political.
We at nfpResearch respect and encourage the charity sector in its role in campaigning for political and social change. The arena of public opinion, however, is where a public clash with MPs is most able to take its toll. But rather than imagining that the loudest voices we see on social media represent public opinion in its entirety, we’re armed with decades of data to answer the question: how do the public actually feel about charities getting political?
Trust in charities far higher than trust in government or political parties
Public trust in institutions is a good indicator of which voices the public put stock in. What we’ve seen consistently is that the public are much more likely to trust the charity sector over any political source in the UK, be that an individual party, local authority, or central government. In fact, public trust in the charity sector is at a high, at 70%. This is at huge odds with public trust in political entities, which are currently close to an all-time low – only 7% of the public trust political parties as of last month.
In fact, our 2021 research showed that when we asked the public about who should be able to campaign for social or political change, charities were the second most popular answer (65%), only behind the government (66%). This means that charities were more recognised as a desirable force for political change than either local authorities or political parties. Clearly, there’s strong desire to hear charities’ voices heard in these spheres.
There’s widespread support for charities campaigning politically
Research also shows that political engagement isn’t so bad for the reputation. In fact, a charity campaigning to change the law is the factor least likely to put the public off supporting that charity. For many people, this simply isn’t considered an issue when choosing where to donate.
Similarly, we’ve seen in previous research from 2014-15 that the public are far from appalled by the idea of charities getting political. The majority of the public supported charities being able to criticise the government and challenge policy, and charities were rated as the type of organisation it was least important to restrict when it comes to lobbying. 55% of the public told us that they believe it important that charities have a voice in parliament, with many fewer – only 28% – saying that they shouldn’t campaign. Time and again, it seems, we’re being told that the majority of people in the UK are in support of charities as voices of political reason, and their capacity to get involved politically is not, for now, in question.
Social media messaging needs to be well-considered
Interestingly, there are certain expectations for charities within the social media space. In March 2021, while 55% of the public agreed with charities lobbying MPs, only 42% believed that they should be campaigning on social media. In the public eye, this may not be the space to tackle matters of politics.
Likewise, most of the public are against direct action groups and their confrontational tactics. As we discovered in our recent report, charities are seen as the “good cop” to direct action groups’ “bad cop” and can receive benefits from direct action efforts. If charities begin to engage in politics using the same very public and sometimes aggressive tactics as these groups, it's possible that they could lose their “good cop” image and alienate their core supporters.
We, and the wider public, agree that charities should be able to challenge policy and engage MPs. However, navigating the right tone for this will always be risky. Thankfully, it’s likely that isolated incidents of confrontation won’t have too great an impact on the overall brand of charities – but it’s worth considering these unwritten rules of engagement when it’s time to commit to comms.
If you want to learn more about our research with the public or with MPs, message us at insight@nfpResearch.com.