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Latest Third Sector Trends report reveals insights into nonprofits’ political activity at local level


With the Charity Commission’s guidance on the use of social media for charities currently in consultation, a new Third Sector Trends report has provided insights into how much political activity is going on among nonprofits at local level.

Third Sector Trends in England and Wales 2022: relationships, influencing and collaboration looks at the extent, incidence and purpose of sector influencing in England and Wales for what it believes is the first time using a big representative survey. The report includes insights into how nonprofits use digital media for campaigning.

It shows that a majority of organisations steer clear of political issues:

73% of organisations say they do not engage in local political activity with 43% of these expressing this view strongly, and only 9% of organisations strongly committed to engaging with local political issues.

About 71% of organisations stated that they try to participate in formal meetings and events that address issues associated with local social and public policy, but only 21% of organisations strongly agreed that they do this. 14% of the sample said that they have no interest in attending such events.

Almost half (47%) agreed that they campaign to influence local policy. But only 14% are heavily committed to campaigning, with 22% of organisations strongly against campaigning.

A third of organisations are happy to delegate responsibility for engagement with local social and public policy to local third sector infrastructure organisations (such as a CVS). But very few appear to be willing to abstain entirely from influencing local policy (8%).

Only 9% strongly agreed that they work behind the scenes to influence policy– but another third agree that this is an option they sometimes take. 57% do not try to influence policy from ‘behind the scenes’, with 28% more adamant about this.

Digital campaigning varies by size of organisations. Larger organisations (36%) are more involved than the smallest organisations (23%), although smaller organisations are much more numerous.

The purposes of digital campaigning can be identified by looking at the beneficiaries served by organisations, the report says. For example, its findings show that 68% of organisations that work for people with concerns about gender and sexuality engage in some form of campaigning. All of these organisations (100%) use digital media to campaign. At the other end of the spectrum, of those organisations which serve ‘people in general’ only 45% engage in campaigning – of which 76% use social media to campaign.

Collaboration & relationships with local public sector

Among its other areas of focus, the report also looks at how nonprofits work together, as well as with the local public sector. It found that:

73% are currently engaged in ‘informal relationships’ with other voluntary organisations and groups and another 9% would like to work this way.

65% work closely but only semi-formally with other third sector organisations with complementary working an option 11% of organisations are considering.

A third work in formal partnership arrangements (34%) and another fifth are interested in doing so. Almost half (47%) of the sector is disinterested in formal partnership working.

Looking at relationships with local public sector, the study found that nonprofits are now more likely to feel that local public sector organisations keep them informed about issues affecting them than in 2010 (rising from 62% in 2010 to 72% in 2022). Around half feel that their organisation is appropriately involved in developing and implementing policies that are relevant to them however – a figure that has remained unchanged since 2014. About 40% said they have no relationship with the local public sector.

Rob Williamson, Chief Officer of the Community Foundation said:

“There’s talk in all sectors about the value of collaboration and this report shows the depth and importance of the sector’s internal and external relationships. These relationships maintain the third sector’s social impact because, collectively, the sector as a whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. It’s not all about formal partnership working, complementary action is vital too – where organisations stay independent but work collectively towards a common purpose.”

The full report can be downloaded from the Community Foundations site. Third Sector Trends has been surveying the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector every three years since 2010. In 2022, 6,070 responses were received across England and Wales (an average of around 600 responses in each region).

About the Charity Commission draft guidance on charities’ use of social media

The Charity Commission’s draft guidance on how charities should use social media is currently in consultation with the sector invited to respond before the deadline of 14 March. The Commission says that its casework suggests some trustees have limited oversight of their charities’ use of social media compared to other aspects of their communication and engagement strategy and that the guidance is intended to help trustees improve this understanding and clarify their responsibilities.

The guidance says charities can ‘engage on emotive or controversial topics if this is a way of achieving its charitable purpose’, but that trustees must take action if social media has ‘problematic content’.  One area that has been highlighted by sector figures as requiring further clarification concerns the use of personal social media accounts and the recommendation that trustees set rules on how they can be used.

The guidance says that trustees, employees or volunteers are free to post or share personal content and viewpoints on their own social media accounts but that sometimes an individual’s posts can be interpreted as reflecting those of a charity. Trustees, it says, are responsible for identifying and managing risks like this, such as by being clear on rules and policies.

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