Charity Commission alert on think tanks

The Charity Commission has issued an alert to remind trustees of their legal obligations and duties in relation to think tanks which have charitable status, pointing out that these are generally established for educational purposes and the charity must be politically neutral

The Commission’s CEO Helen Stephenson has also written to think tanks, saying that this is not new guidance, and while it is rare for the regulator to provide further information in this way to a group of charities, ‘such is our concern about the activities of charities across this sub-sector that we have felt it necessary on this occasion’.

The alert outlines the key requirements for trustees to consider. Any research published or other activity undertaken by a think tank  must have sufficient value in educational terms; further the charity’s purposes; be available (either directly or indirectly) to the public, or a sufficient section of the public; present the public with information that permits them to form their own opinions; and be educational in the way understood by charity law.

Education does not have to be entirely neutral; it can start from a generally accepted position that something is beneficial. A charity can therefore promote uncontroversial views and perspectives, but should not be used to promote a specific policy, or use researchers with a known bias.

The regulator points out that the trustees must ensure that the charity’s outputs (research reports, articles, seminars and so on) are balanced and neutral, and that there are robust processes and procedures in place that can provide assurance on how the charity The trustees need to have appropriate processes and procedures in place to ensure they are adequately informed and are fully in control of the charity.

They also need a full grasp of the activities being carried out by the charity, including its use of social media, and oversight of the choice of research topics. There should be a process for trustees to sign-off reports that are likely to be controversial or generate significant publicity (together with the communication and launch plan) to ensure that they comply with legal and regulatory requirements.

Similarly, trustees must manage their charity’s resources responsibly, including protecting and safeguarding its reputation. This risk can often be higher for charities operating on high profile, emotive subjects – trustees must take particular care to ensure they can demonstrate their independence.

The Charity Commission also provides advice on the issues around campaigning and political activity. its alert points out that some charities seek to disclaim responsibility for political opinions expressed by reports by claiming that the opinions published are not those of the charity but are of the individual authors of the report. If the authors are employees of the charity then the views expressed will be considered to be the views of the charity.

Special care must be taken if any researchers employed by the charity are well known for their political persuasion. The trustees will need to be convinced on reasonable grounds that the researchers will conduct the research objectively and honestly.

They must also be mindful of public perception that the research has not been conducted from a neutral position damaging the charity’s reputation. It is one of the trustees’ duties to make sure that the charity’s publications do not become used as political vehicles.

Letter to charitable think tanks from Charity Commission CEO Helen Stephenson is here

Charity Commission alert is here

Report by Pat Sweet

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