Political parties' perceptions of charity roles

A red and blue door

Political parties' perceptions of charity roles

This week’s blog reflects on results from our research with MPs, which indicates that there are stark party differences in what MPs see as the roles of charities.

Katharina Zistler

With a new PM and a new cabinet, public affairs teams might be wondering how to address pressing questions about the future. A couple of weeks ago, our colleague Ben collected examples of open letters the sector had published with pleas for support. He noted that ‘the charity sector is empathically advocating for the needs of the public’. Charities know how challenging this is. They need to reach a spectrum of MPs with diverse perspectives and expectations and gain their trust and respect. Successful public affairs teams will also know that differences might exist along party lines. Summarizing results from our quarterly tracking with MPs, this week’s blog gives examples of this divide and shows that Conservative and Labour MPs might even disagree on what the core roles of charities should be.

Last year, we asked MPs how acceptable they found different actions a charity might take. Most MPs agreed that ‘A charity holding a parliamentary reception to inform MPs of the work it is doing’, and ‘A charity highlighting the effects of a policy on its beneficiaries’ were acceptable. But other actions on the list were more controversial. 68% of MPs thought it was acceptable for a charity to provide frontline services instead of the Government, and only half (49%) of MPs were appreciative of 'A charity challenging the policies of a political party’.

The percentages might not be too surprising for charity teams working with MPs, but looking at the party splits raised the question whether Conservative and Labour MPs fundamentally differ on what they believe a charity should be doing (see Chart 1). While 86% of Conservative MPs thought charities can provide frontline services instead of the Government, Labour MPs were split on this idea. Regarding challenging party policies, we saw a reversed picture. 87% of Labour MPs felt that this was an acceptable charity action but most Conservative MPs did not. It seems that Conservative MPs see one of the main roles of the sector to be service provision, while Labour MPs want to be challenged by charities.


Chart 1: MPs’ impressions on acceptable actions for charities by party

Chart 1

“Please rate how acceptable or unacceptable you find each of the below actions.” Definitely acceptable and Somewhat acceptable combined
Source: Charity Parliamentary Monitor, Mar-Apr 21, nfpResearch | Base: 57 Conservative, 31 Labour MPs among 100 MPs


We wanted to know more, and asked MPs directly to describe what they considered to be the three main roles of charities. Unsurprisingly, ‘Helping those in need / Support their causes’ was top of the list, referred to by 72% of MPs. Other roles MPs mentioned were fundraising, raising awareness and campaigning. But again, Conservative and Labour MPs varied in their responses (see Chart 2). While ‘Helping those in need’ was clearly the favourite among most Conservative MPs (83%), Labour MPs had a wider interpretation of charity roles including different aspects of campaigning. Although the same proportion of Conservative and Labour MPs named ‘Achieving policy changes’ as a charity role, Labour MPs were more likely to also mention ‘Campaigning for their cause/change’ and ‘Lobbying Government or decision makers’ as charity roles (compared to few Conservative MPs).


Chart 2: What MPs consider to be the main roles of charities by party

Chart 2

What do you consider to be the three main roles of charities?” Unprompted question, ranked by total
Source: Charity Parliamentary Monitor, Jan-Mar 22, nfpResearch | Base: 56 Conservative, 31 Labour MPs among 100 MPs


Our data shows that most MPs value certain charity actions, supporting their cause and beneficiaries, or informing MPs. But it also reveals key differences in MPs’ expectations towards the work of charities. Conservative MPs seem to view service provision and fundraising as clear priorities for charities, but Labour MPs are more likely to see charities having a wider brief that includes raising awareness, campaigning and lobbying for change.

We know that charities are aware that they need to meet MPs’ distinct expectations. In our interviews with public affairs experts for our report on charity campaigning, we heard many examples of how they approach engaging with different MPs. We hope that highlighting another layer to this – parties’ divided expectations towards charity roles – will help teams across the sector as they campaign for positive change in the future.

To learn more about the research we do with MPs, please consider signing up for our Charity Parliamentary Monitor. You can download more info below.

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